UNITED NATIONS, N.Y. — Constancio Pinto learned his hardest lesson in foreign affairs long before he started graduate studies in international relations here in the US. After Indonesian troops killed some 200 peaceful demonstrators in his hometown of Dili, East Timor, in November 1991, he expected the world to jump to his people's aid.
"We thought a peacekeeping force would come days after the massacre," he recalls. "After three days, we didn't hear anything.... People were so disappointed with the UN at that time."
Eight years later, Mr. Pinto will finally see blue helmets in East Timor. The United Nations is drawing up plans for its troops to replace a multinational force led by Australia, which is anxious to leave and cut its expenses.
Both East Timor and the UN have the opportunity to extricate themselves from a difficult period. After East Timorese overwhelmingly voted for independence Aug. 30, pro-Indonesia militiamen terrorized the territory, sending hundreds of thousands of people running from their homes.
Last week, Secretary-General Kofi Annan outlined his ambitious proposals for the world body to take full control - of both the civil administration and defense - on the tiny half island. The Security Council is expected to sanction this broad mandate this month, including a proposed 9,000-strong force that may arrive in December, a quarter century after Indonesia invaded the territory.
Critics say that Mr. Annan naively accepted Jakarta's promises to ensure security, despite reports alleging the Indonesian army's complicity in violence against East Timorese during the months leading up to the UN-run referendum. Annan contends that he had no choice because Indonesia had sovereignty.
The debate comes in a particularly difficult year for the world body. It is charged with promoting international peace and security. Yet its peacekeeping force has dwindled to some 13,000 from a 1993 high of 80,000, even as the number of conflicts has grown in the same period. And it took a back seat to NATO in Kosovo.
Now East Timor symbolizes a possible turning point. It will be one of several new missions. Blue helmets are expected to replace regional forces in Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as Ethiopia and Eritrea. The organization has already taken over the reconstruction of a charred Kosovo, creating from scratch a judiciary, a police force, and virtually all the trappings of a civil society.
But while NATO enforces peace in Kosovo, UN peacekeepers will assume that responsibility in East Timor. Indeed, East Timor's reconstruction, estimated to cost more than $500 million in the first year, would be the world body's biggest operation since the $1.6 billion effort in Cambodia seven years ago. It oversaw a Vietnamese pullout, ran elections that steered Cambodia toward democracy, sent in 16,000 troops, and created a transitional government.
It is not surprising that peacekeeping is on the upswing after 1994's disaster in Somalia forced a decline, says David Malone, the president of the New York-based International Peace Academy and a former Canadian diplomat to the UN. "Having tried to do without them, there's been a realization that there's no alternative."
Just how long UN peacekeeping remains on an upswing may depend on its performance in East Timor. Soldiers in blue helmets will have to deal with militiamen who are believed to be regrouping and preparing for another offensive.
Bernard Miyet, the peacekeeping department's chief, says many soldiers from the multinational force will be transferred to the UN mission. But the Australian force will be significantly reduced, and there will be a greater proportion of Asian soldiers in order to allay political concerns. Maj. Gen. Peter Cosgrove may be replaced by an Asian chief.
Increasing the proportion of Asian troops will likely make the UN force more averse to risk, as Asian nations have historically objected to proactive UN military forces. Yasushi Akashi, who was head of the UN transitional authority in Cambodia, recalls that a French deputy commander advocated disarming the Khmer Rouge, the brutal communist regime. But Asian member states protested and won the argument, contending that it would lead to heavy casualties.
John Marston, a professor at Colegio de Mexico's Center for Asian and African Studies, says the UN mission in Cambodia was faulted for not bringing about peace. "The Khmer Rouge withdrew from the peace process, and there continued to be fighting for several years after the elections."
As in Cambodia, the UN may not be able to create peace in East Timor, but it can lay a foundation by building up democratic institutions. The UN mission in Cambodia "was successful just in the fact that it succeeded in creating a country that had diplomatic legitimacy in the international community," says Mr. Marston.
"It's good at transitional arrangements to help a society reestablish itself after it's been destroyed," says Hurst Hannum, a professor of international law at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass., who adds that the organization should not be held to unrealistic expectations. "What it can't do is create consensus within the society."
But even creating democratic institutions will not be much easier than keeping the peace. And if Haiti is any indication, the UN should prepare for a long mission. After a US-led multinational force restored a democratically-elected leader to power in Haiti in 1994, the UN assumed peacekeeping efforts as well as the overhaul of a judicial system and a law-enforcement force. Five years into the mission, the Haitian police force is plagued by allegations of corruption and ties to the illicit drug trade. "The results in many ways are disappointing, but the Haitian national police force is still a much better force than Haiti has ever had," says Mr. Malone.
Nobel laureate Jos Ramos-Horta expects East Timor to experience fewer problems in creating a police force and civil administration. Whereas the UN tried to reform a corrupt system in Haiti, he argues, it will work on a clean slate in East Timor since Indonesian government officials and troops have left.
Starting with a clean slate, however, can be a double-edged sword. Under 23 years of Indonesian control, relatively few East Timorese held civil administrative jobs and even fewer had high-level postings.
On the bright side, a UN transitional authority will have the advantage of working in a small area with a population of just 850,000 and a group of strong leaders, says Mr. Hannum. Many people believe the charismatic Jos Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmo, whom Indonesia released from house arrest only last month, will be the first president. Even before independence, Mr. Gusmo and other East Timorese are expected to hold administrative posts.
Although Annan's report last week only said that East Timorese would be consulted by UN authorities during the two- to three-year transition period, Mr. Ramos-Horta says he has received assurances from the secretary-general that East Timorese will hold prominent offices.
Where's the money?
Meanwhile in New York, UN officials are searching for necessary funds. Bills from previous peacekeeping missions have not been fully paid, not even the ones from Cambodia seven years ago, says Joseph Connor, the undersecretary-general for management. Indeed, the Kosovo mission has received only some $34 million of the assessed $125 million. The US has not paid, even though it urged the mission at the UN. The world body expects Washington, which already owes the UN more than $1 billion, to pay 31 percent of the peacekeeping costs for East Timor. But Congress insists that its share in any mission would not be more than 25 percent.
In order to finance Kosovo and other operations, the UN has to ignore some bills and raid funds from other missions. "What we are doing is not paying our bills and not paying them at all to the troop- and equipment-providing countries," Mr. Connor explains. Although this does not hamper UN operations, it places an undue burden on poor countries who may become increasingly unwilling to contribute to future missions, says Miyet.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society