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Timor-Leste: Links between Peacebuilding, Conflict Prevention and Durable Solutions to Displacement

Finding durable solutions for those displaced by conflict is critical to building sustainable peace when those conflicts come to an end. When refugees or internally displaced persons (IDPs) are unable to find solutions, stability and peace are more difficult to sustain. At the same time, durable solutions for the displaced usually depend not only on ending the conflict, but also on the establishment of security in areas where the displaced are living or to which they hope to return. While there is thus a common interest between those working on displacement and those working on peacebuilding, in practice organizations working in these areas tend to operate in isolation from one another.

This case study focuses on Timor-Leste where two distinct but interrelated conflicts have caused mass displacement over the past 12 years. In August 1999 a United Nations-run Popular Consultation took place to determine the future of the small territory. The people of Timor-Leste voted overwhelmingly for independence – a result which led to widespread violence – with the Indonesian military and pro-Indonesian militias destroying 70 percent of the country’s buildings and infrastructure as they departed. About 450,000 people were displaced by the mass violence and widespread destruction. Between 1999 and 2002 most of the displaced had returned or resettled. Most, however, did not return to their places of origin. Instead, many IDPs and refugees chose to settle in the capital city of Dili, often occupying land that did not belong to them.

In 2006 a new crisis occurred that displaced approximately 150,000 people in the capital Dili and led to the crumbling of the security sector. While the crisis is often attributed to the breakdown of the security sector, in fact the roots of the conflict are a complex interplay of political, economic and social factors that resulted from incomplete handling of the first displacement in 1999. These factors include: a failure to define land and property regimes to settle competing claims; latent tensions between the lorosa’e (easterners) and loromonu (westerners) exacerbated by these communities’ uneven access to land and property in Dili after the 1999 returns; lingering unresolved tensions between citizens dating back to Portuguese times; impunity with regards to serious crimes and the use of arson as a common retaliatory tool; and widespread poverty.

In Timor-Leste the first wave of displacement in 1999 was resolved through a mixture of return and integration in another part of the country, in this case the capital city Dili. In the second wave of displacement in 2006 while the government tried to assist IDPs to settle elsewhere in the country as its preferred solution, for a variety of reasons this was unfeasible and the government ended up pursing a return policy.

The United Nations and international security forces exercised extraordinary involvement in Timor-Leste during this turbulent time from 1999 through independence in 2002 and continuing all the way to 2012. During this thirteen-year period Timor-Leste played host to five different United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations missions and two separate multinational military forces. While each mission played a unique role in the peacebuilding process, it was the interplay between stabilization forces and the peacekeeping missions that was most important in bringing an end to each of the conflicts.

The rapid deployment of multinational military forces under a Chapter VII mandate in both 1999 and then in 2006 were essential to stabilizing the situation and preventing new displacement. Both forces were then followed by UN Security Council-mandated peacebuilding missions that included substantial police contingents. The UN mission from1999-2002 helped create the conditions for rapid return of IDPs and refugees, but the follow-on missions did not ensure the sustainability of those returns because of their failure to address the key drivers of conflict.

The humanitarian phase of the IDP crisis in 2006 was also fairly effective. By July 2006 the new displacements had stopped and some – but not all – IDPs had returned home. In fact, 100,000 people had not returned. While the UN mission and the international military forces were successful in preventing new large-scale displacements, they were unable to gain the confidence of IDPs that they would be safe in returning home.

A return process was finally initiated in 2008 with the support of both cash payments and reconciliation measures, and was a remarkable success that appears to have ended displacement in a durable manner. What it failed to do, which was also the case in 1999-2005, was to address the underlying issues of land title reform, the ability of the security sector to provide long-term stability, or to develop a fully-functioning community dispute resolution mechanism blending customary practice with formal justice.

As the Timor-Leste case study shows, returns eventually turned out to be successful, and many of the components for durable solutions to displacement were identified and implemented. However, the long term development challenges and the contributing factors to conflict have fallen through the gaps in a system of overlapping mandates, different working cultures and competition for funding.

There is a need for greater civil-military coordination and the development of intentional overlapping of mandates between humanitarian, peacebuilding, and peacemaking, and peacekeeping actors. Structural barriers exist for holding separate agencies responsible for overlapping areas of work. Thus there is a need to go beyond a general understanding of how each area in peace operations works. Strategic and operational plans are needed in which areas of overlapping mandates are made explicit and actors are held accountable for their activities.

Quick response military forces proved particularly effective during both conflicts in stabilizing the situation until a UN mission arrived. They also established conditions which enabled the delivery of humanitarian aid. However, there is the need for both more rapid and more permanent policing presence in IDP camps. If done in a sensitive manner, this would help instill a greater level of familiarity and trust in the United Nations Police services by the displaced.

The two main successes in response to the displacement were community reconciliation processes in 1999 and the dialogue teams that assisted with returns after the 2006 crisis. In both cases the use of traditional structures and customary practice played a large role in successfully creating the conditions for IDPs to return in safety and security to their communities. The weakness of these processes is that they were compartmentalized and limited to IDP situations rather than being applied holistically to a wide range of root causes, which continue to remain unaddressed.

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