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Groundhog Day: UN police mentoring in Timor-Leste

25 February 2009 14:30

Jim Della-Giacoma is an Associate Director at the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum at the Social Science Research Council in New York City.

In the internet age, the braggadocio, exaggeration or inaccuracy of hometown news reports escapes no one. Two recent stories have got me thinking about the wide gap in the way UN policing is talked about ‘back home’ and the realities on the ground. In the first, Radio New Zealand reported last week the latest rotation of 25 Kiwi officers.

They will act as coaches and mentors to Timorese police, giving ideas and guidance on community policing. Their training has included learning the local dialect. They will be armed with their normal weaponry, including baton, firearm and pepper spray. The deployment will be for six months.

The second, in the New Straits Times of Malaysia last December, headlined 'Heroes In Blue: A riotous 6 months in Timor Leste', was an account of the rotation of a 140-man police unit between October 2007 and April last year.

"There was a riot every day," said the deputy commanding officer of the 10th Battalion of the General Operations Force based in Sibu. "Our ability to understand Bahasa Indonesia was both an asset and a liability. The locals spoke either Portuguese or Bahasa Indonesia, we and the contingent from Portugal bore the brunt of the troubles as we could communicate with them. "We had stones and spears thrown at us and were even shot at with arrows. Police contingents from other nations were assigned to less troubled spots and relatively easier tasks like guarding the international airport.

Good policing is the foundation on which the societies we all want to live in are built. It is not readily exportable to a country where you don’t understand the language, history or culture, though over the last decade, dozens of rotations involving thousands of police officers from around the world have shown they can make a valuable contribution to maintaining peace and security.

However, the enduring weakness of the Polícia Nacional Timor-Leste (PNTL) demonstrates that it is a much tougher job to build, train, and mentor a police force.

For Timorese police, some on the job since early 2000 and others veterans of the Indonesian police (POLRI), each rotation of new 'coaches and mentors' must feel like the movie Groundhog Day. It is an open secret of UN policing that good coppers back home don’t always make good mentors and trainers, especially in foreign countries. The kind of language skills and background knowledge to do this effectively cannot be found in a manual and takes longer than a six-month tour of duty to acquire. Similar to another Bill Murray movie, much gets lost in translation. For the Timorese police, UN mentoring could mean guidance from an officer from Ukraine today, the Philippines tomorrow, and Zambia next month. 

The upbeat and naïve tone of the radio report belies the complex realities in a country that has experienced a generation of conflict. First, newly arrived UNPOL will find that rather than 'introduce a new style of policing to the country', Timorese citizens have been policing themselves since the Indonesians left in October 1999, particularly in the countryside.

They will soon realize they have arrived on the eve of resumption of responsibilities when UN police will be formally handing back control of the police to the PNTL. The tide has turned and all international advisors, particularly new arrivals, will have an increasingly tougher time getting the ear of local colleagues. Even the legal basis for UN policing has been questioned by the Timor-Leste Court of Appeal.

Acquiring local language skills is always a good thing for a short stay in any country, but knowing a little local history is also helpful. Any police officer about to deploy to Timor-Leste should browse Chega!, the Report of the Commission for Reception, Truth, and Reconciliation in Timor-Leste (CAVR), or at least those sections in the annex by Geoffrey Robinson on Crimes Against Humanity in 1999 that document the role of the Indonesian police.

For some warmer and shorter history they should download a copy of the Report of Independent Special Commission of Inquiry in Timor-Leste that lists all those past and present PNTL officers who were recommended for prosecution following the violence in 2006. The CoI report also documents the attack by police on the house of the army (F-FDTL) commander on 24 May 2006 and the shooting of nine PNTL officers by soldiers as they marched under the UN flag.

With such spilt blood largely unresolved by any legal process, the potential for 'green' on 'blue' armed violence remains real. The relationship between the security forces is also fraught with legal uncertainty. In such cases, if prospective UNPOL have also read the UNMIT Internal Review Panel, they will know what to do. UNPOL’s SOP in the case of encountering those with military-style weapons, rather than just stones and arrows, is to withdraw and call in the International Stabilisation Force.

In their brief time in Timor-Leste, UNPOL probably have as much to learn as they will have time to teach. If, after all the above reading, an UNPOL officer has had time to study some Tetum, perhaps the first conversation they should have with their new counterparts is about their past experiences with UNPOL colleagues. Undoubtedly, there have been some good ones and great ones whose lessons have been remembered years later. Listening and learning from their example might be a good way to start a six-month stay.

Photo by Flickr user scottobear, used under a Creative Commons license.