Tuesday 24 Nov 2020 | 11:10 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 24 Nov 2020 | 11:10 | SYDNEY

Timor-Leste: A need for accountability not force

11 April 2011 09:16

Dr Gordon Peake worked on police reform in Timor-Leste from 2008 to 2011. He will soon take up a position at the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Program at ANU. These are his private views.

As Timorese police take over responsibility from the UN, their role and function needs fresh thinking. After ten-plus years of UN and international tutelage, shoot-from-the-hip rhetoric is obscuring urgent police development.

'Violence will meet violence', boomed Timorese Police Commander Longuinhos Monteiro at a press conference in Dili, the nation's capital, on 31 March. A few days later, he told Timorese television that the police weren't ready to provide security for elections scheduled for next year and needed to buy more guns.

Commander Monteiro speaks with new authority. On 27 March, the UN handed him and his force, Policia Nacional de Timor-Leste (PNTL), primary responsibility for policing. UN Police have had primary responsibility since the breakdown of law and order in 2006. Last week's handover ended prematurely the previously agreed (and frequently critiqued) process by which districts and units would not be handed over until it was jointly determined they were ready.

Among the areas that repeatedly failed the joint assessment was Dili, the centre of the crisis. The problems in the failing districts and units were nothing to do with violence, but owed to the fact that policies, procedures and processes were either not known or not followed.

The paramilitary bluster of the handover parade was illustrative of the police the UN has bequeathed, with lots of heavy weaponry on display. It was hard to see much up-to-date policing policy substance in many parts of the PNTL beyond uniforms, guns and equipment. The United Nations — due to stay until the end of 2012 in a monitoring capacity — must be holding their breath that nothing goes wrong.

The Police Commander's rhetoric gives a false picture of current realities. The very good news from Timor-Leste is that this is a much different and safer country now than when large parts collapsed into violence in 2006. Levels of reported crime are extremely low, and there is a bustle and confidence on the streets of Dili and many other parts of the country.

Leaked results from a UN survey record high levels of public contentment with the police. There is very little for the PNTL's many special units tasked with managing public order to do. The major crime issue remains sky-high rates of domestic violence, something that should obviously not be met with 'more violence' and which requires a more sensitive response.

In the course of his media commentary, the Police Commander also said that any PNTL that acted improperly in the course of their duties would be subject to investigation. This is good news and one hopes that he is as good as his word, because accountability remains the major issue in his police force. 

Few PNTL that have acted improperly before have received public sanction. Since the police force was formed in 2000, just a handful of internal investigation cases have resulted in dismissal. Many of the PNTL named in the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry into the crisis of 2006 remain in their jobs. In a well publicised case in December 2009, Dili police officers shot and killed a popular youth known as Kuka Lebre — an inquiry was announced, but it has yet to result in a prosecution.

In late 2010, the Government decided to 'certify' all officers with outstanding allegations against them, including murder and serious assault. This made a mockery of the original intention of the certification process, which was to restore the credibility of the PNTL after its collapse in 2006. The decision brought opprobrium from the UN Secretary-General and member states, but had little impact on the ground. Notwithstanding the cases already dismissed, there are over 1425 disciplinary cases — an average of one for every 2.5 police officers — still to be addressed.

The Timorese Government is aggressively asserting its new found sovereignty over the security sector, which means the international community's leverage and influence is slight. Simply put, the Timorese police and Government are fed up with advice from well-meaning foreigners. Their attitude is entirely understandable.

After eleven years of plans and programs developed with minimal Timorese input and delivered by international advisers that cannot speak Tetun, who can really blame them' With coffers swollen by petroleum revenues from the Timor Sea, the Government is adamant it wants to pursue police reform on its own terms, which do not necessarily accord with internationally accepted best practice. Longuinhos' statement reflects that.

However, much of this reform appears more form than substance. More and more flash cars and pickup trucks are being bought for the PNTL, which, windows down and music blaring, zoom around the crowded streets of Dili to little obvious purpose beyond stroking the driver's ego.

Training courses are frequently postponed or sparsely attended, a sure signal of the low degree of importance attached to professional self-improvement. There remains much less attention devoted to the less glamorous 'nuts and bolts' of institutional development and little real interest on the part of many police officers in the subject.

There seems no reason for martial rhetoric and more guns; there is every need to re-focus attention on the less glamorous — but ultimately much more useful — task of strengthening still weak accountability systems and back-office procedures and enforcing discipline.

Longuinhos Monteiro is an extremely capable person, as is his civilian boss, Francisco da Costa Guterres, the Secretary of State for Security. There are many able and decent people in both their organisations. Now they face a test of their abilities. With new sovereignty comes new responsibility.

The PNTL urgently needs a culture of accountability, not a culture of violence.

Photo courtesy of the United Nations.