The UN at 75: Stocktaking of UN story in Timor-Leste

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Government House, Dili - Photo courtesy of easttimorlegal.blogspot.com

While the nation has made great strides in improving civil and political rights, its low human development index suggests that policies have not been effective in improving living standards. Khoo Ying Hooi explores this imbalance.

This is a special year for the UN as it celebrates its 75th anniversary.

It is particularly significant at a time when the world is facing a health crisis that has severe social and economic impacts.

On top of that, the world is also facing challenges, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice.

Amid all these challenges and debates, it is time for us to better understand the nexus of peace, security, development and human rights as championed by the UN and how it can be more effectively implemented on the ground.

Quoting from the Varieties of Peace Network that I am attached with, peace processes have often been evaluated and studied during shorter time periods, after the end of conflict.

Peace, however, can be interpreted differently depending on the country context or even at the community level. Peace and security can take many different forms that go well beyond “peace as the absence of war”.

The choices made during a peace process and failures to address root causes can have long-term consequences. That said, the understanding of peace and security needs to move away from the traditional international relations to better comprehend its variations in terms of quality and features, and peace should be perceived as a dynamic societal process of change.

In the zero draft of the UN75 Political Declaration by Member States, under the subheading “We will work to ensure peace and security”, it is mentioned that “to build, keep and sustain peace in societies emerging from conflict is now one of the main responsibilities of the UN”.

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I would like to draw attention to my empirical observation in Timor-Leste, the newest country in South East Asia, having restored its independence in 2002 after a bloody independence struggle that killed a quarter of its population.

As a country that experienced a UN-assisted transition with the 1999 referendum followed by state-building operations under several missions and peacekeepers with the UN and other countries such as Australia, the discourse of peace, security, development and human rights remains intriguing in Timor-Leste.

Today, Timor-Leste remains one of the world’s poorest countries with 42% of its population living below the national poverty line despite being an oil-rich state. So what does mean for Timorese in its post-independence context?<

Peace and security no longer mean the absence of conflict; rather, in looking at the future we want and our shared global vision, the focus on peace should be on sustainable peace, and it must be built from a rights frameworks to protect the locals’ interests in the processes of peace and security within the paradigm of development. Using the experience of the Timorese community, there is an urgent need to provide for the needs and facilitate the creation of political and social structures that can support and offer contextual rights and dignity for the people.

While it is common to see an influx of foreign aid in the name of rebuilding and restructuring coming naturally after a country has experienced a conflict or during the conflict itself, it raises the question of whether this is necessarily a good thing.

In the case of Timor-Leste, in the first two-and-a-half years of its transition from UN control to independence, the state depended entirely on international development assistance, bilateral and multilateral, as well as support from international NGOs, where they created the impetus behind the transition.

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Timor-Leste was widely considered as a liberal peace state-building success story, compared to other UN state-building in other parts of the world. It is ranked 54th in the 2020 Global Peace Index issued by the Institute for Economics and Peace. It is ranked 78th in the World Press Freedom Index 2020. Among the South East Asian countries, Timor-Leste remains the highest ranked at 41st in the Democracy Index 2019 issued by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).

But in the Human Development Index, it did not perform as well with a ranking of 131st in 2019. The huge gap between these indexes shows an imbalance in the state-building process as the low human development index suggests that policies have not been effective in improving the living standards of the local population.

Hybridity, according to post-colonial literatures, is an outcome of attempts to decolonise peoples, territories, and knowledge. It reminds us of the lack of autonomy on the part of local actors in peace-making contexts. Such historical processes have also been recognised in various UN documents, including in the General Assembly and the Security Council, as well as by various agencies, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Documents refer to the need for among others, self-determination, local legitimacy, ownership, and partnership.

In most cases, both local and international actors enter a bargaining relationship, and each actor imposes its own cultural values, norms and practices. When this happens, tension can take place. Using the case of Timor-Leste, what it particularly needs is to close the power relations’ gap between local and global narratives so that both actors can continue to shape each other through a progressive inter-relationship. Without it, while the peace formation may survive, it might result in a poorer quality peace in the local context, as so many post-Cold War cases of intervention have revealed.

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The approaches such as prioritisation of international interventions over local interventions and top-down state-building over bottom-up should be reminded. The preliminary assessment of the UN75 Survey Report highlights the need for more effective global partnerships and platforms for cooperation and knowledge-sharing; and involves more women, youth, indigenous and vulnerable groups in policy and decision-making processes.

The demands such as equal access to basic services and protection of human rights is also highlighted in the same report. This shows us that restoring rights that have been neglected due to violent conflict can potentially provide a strong framework for better integrating the concepts of human rights and peace.

As argued by various scholars such as Amartya Sen notably, peace is defined as the equitable distribution of economic opportunities, political freedoms and social opportunities, and to ensure a sustainable peace, an empowerment approach should always be emphasised.

To move forward, it is important for the international community to seek to understand the on-the-ground process whereby that condition is constructed, maintained and replicated.

Source: www.sinchew.com.my

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