Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

One Man’s Legacy in East Timor

Almost ten years ago, UN representative Sergio Vieira de Mello was killed in Iraq. His earlier work deserves to be remembered.

By Kiran Mohandas Menon for
One Man’s Legacy in East Timor
Credit: REUTERS/Darren Whiteside

In 1999, the United Nations officially established a peacekeeping mission in East Timor (Timor-Leste). The United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) aimed to stabilize the newly independent Southeast Asian nation, which had been ravaged by militias backed by the Indonesian military.

The Indonesian occupation of East Timor lasted more than two decades and claimed around 200,000 lives. In May 1999, the Indonesian authorities agreed to a UN-monitored referendum in which the 800,000 people of East Timor would be given the opportunity to determine their own destiny.

Three months later, the referendum was passed with around 80 percent support and East Timor had finally become a sovereign nation.  The celebrations soon ended as Indonesian militias swept into the nation, destroying and razing everything in their sight, creating a humanitarian crisis with 300,000 people forced to flee into West Timor. More than one thousand East Timorese were killed, with 200 murdered in a local Catholic church alone, in what came to be known as the Liquica Church Massacre.

Soon, with events starting to be reminiscent of the recent horrors in Rwanda, the UN managed to gain enough support from the international community to establish the International Force in East Timor (INTERFRET). Deployed in late 1999, it mostly comprised Australian and New Zealand troops. 

While the INTERFRET managed to successfully end the violence, a bigger challenge remained – the transition of East Timor to democracy and long-term stability, which now looked significantly harder with more than half the country’s properties destroyed, resources looted and population scarred and displaced.

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It was in this context that the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor or the UNTAET was created.  It was to be led by Sergio Vieira De Mello, a charismatic and complicated Brazilian, who had become much more than just another high-flying diplomat. Sergio, as he was affectionately known was instead a figurehead – an obsessively pragmatic man who had become a symbol for the greatest achievements and major flaws of recent UN missions and the UN system itself.

De Mello soon realized the gravity of the challenges he faced. Not only did he have to fulfill the peacekeeping and civil administration of the newly formed nation, which was still fragile and volatile, but he had to do this co-operating with an East Timorese leadership that was incensed to have had authority and power taken away from them less than a year after finally ridding themselves of an occupying power.  The mission also came at a time when the UN’s credibility and reputation was at an all-time low, following the high-profile failures of recent missions, specifically in Bosnia, and with the Srebrenica massacre, which occurred in a UN “safe haven,” not even five years old.

In particular, De Mello had to work with Xanana Gusmao, an East Timorese resistance leader who enjoyed undisputed popularity among his countrymen and was considered their de facto leader, and Jose Ramos-Horta, the international face of the East Timorese resistance and co-recipient of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize.

The initial transition began relatively smoothly. De Mello successfully established an administrative service and introduced the US dollar as the trading currency. To prevent perceptions among East Timorese that the UN staff were living in relative luxury, out of touch with local realities, De Mello lived initially in a damaged hotel room and learned the local language, Tetum. He also created the National Consultative Council, which included prominent members from all sections of East Timorese society, including Xanana Gusmao, to better understand the East Timorese social fabric and make more informed decisions.

To establish a legal system in the country, he appointed judges and prosecutors, arranging to have them trained in Australia.

In what was a major strategic blunder, however, De Mello asked the FALINTIL, the former resistance force, to disband. The move caused an uproar and popular outcry, and he was forced to reverse himself.

Soon, De Mello began the gradual handover of power, despite his mandate not requiring him to do so.

He created a cabinet, consisting of four East Timorese and four international members. His second cabinet would consist solely of East Timorese members. Jose Ramos-Horta agreed to serve as the nation’s foreign minister. He renegotiated oil contracts to best meet the newly formed nation’s needs.

De Mello authorized UN peacekeeping forces to engage Indonesian militia, in a move that that was contrary to UN regulations but restored confidence and a sense of security among the East Timorese people

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Finally, on April 24, 2002, East Timor held presidential elections, with Xanana Gusmao elected as the first president of the Democratic Republic of East Timor.

Sergio Viera De Mello left East Timor in 2002, going on to serve as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General in Iraq.  He was killed in a 2003 explosion, for which Al Qaida subsequently claimed responsibility, with the terrorist outfit specifically referring to his work in East Timor as a reason for targeting him.

In a UN career that lasted more than three decades, De Mello had worked to resolve conflicts in some of the world’s most troubled states, including Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia, Kosovo, Sudan and Bangladesh.

In 2003, when Xanana Gusmao and Bishop Felipe Ximenes Belo (co-recipient of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize) addressed a function to honor East Timorese martyrs, the name of Sergio Vieira De Mello was among them.

As Samantha Power, current United States Ambassador to the United Nations remarked in her book Chasing the Flame, Sergio Vieira De Mello  “left a powerful legacy of humanity, in an age sorely in need of it.”

Kiran Mohandas Menon is an independent researcher from India. His articles have been featured in various international publications.