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UN staff battle over East Timor independence policy

Sydney Morning Herald
Monday, March 13, 2000

By MARK DODD, Herald Correspondent in Dili

Infighting involving senior United Nations staff is threatening East Timor's transition to independence, a senior official says.

The policy dispute has led to the resignation of the UN's head of district administration, who claims "Stalinist" and "colonialist" practises by several senior staff members are jeopardising the UN mission.

In his letter of resignation, dated March 6, Professor Jarat Chopra warned that a handful of senior UN officials were more interested in self-advancement than helping the East Timorese rebuild their devastated country.

"The courageous course for UNTAET [the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor] would have been to fix a date for independence, organise early elections for a Constituent Assembly, transfer power and remain in East Timor for long-term capacity building," Professor Chopra wrote.

"I don't believe we [UNTAET] are prepared to do this even now. Without a meaningful timetable and methodical stages for a transfer of power, this mission will drift, hold an election as an exit strategy next year and leave the Timorese with no genuine capacity built. We will have replicated the overnight decolonisations of decades past."

Professor Chopra, a Briton, is considered one of the most experienced and qualified of the UNTAET administrators. He designed East Timor's district administration policy based on a strategy developed last June for the chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff. His resignation letter was addressed to UNTAET's head, Mr Sergio Vieira de Mello.

Professor Chopra, a research associate and lecturer in international law at Brown University in the US, was formerly special assistant in peacekeeping at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

The most controversial element of the district policy is a World Bank-funded $A57million community empowerment project (CEP), which would let sub-district and village-level officials determine their own development and reconstruction priorities.

Under the plan those officials would be democratically elected, a prerequisite strongly opposed by several senior UNTAET officials, but notably by the head of Territorial Administration, Mr Jesudas Bell. Mr Bell's opposition to the CEP strained relations with several senior members of the East Timorese pro-independence body, the CNRT, including its president, Mr Xanana Gusmao.

While the CEP will go ahead, Professor Chopra's staunch defence of the project's terms and conditions put him on a collision course with Mr Bell. He questioned Mr Bell's competence as an administrator, claiming the department head was responsible for a spate of resignations of other senior officials. A second UNTAET official, Mr David Harland, was also singled out for criticism.

Yesterday, the Herald failed in several attempts to contact Mr Bell, who is in Darwin, on his mobile telephone. Asked for his reaction to claims by Professor Chopra that he had "acted arrogantly, undermining the capacity of the office", Mr Harland replied: "I don't want to talk to you about that."

Mr Harland is serving as UNTAET's Acting Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Governance and Public Administration.

The UN Mission in East Timor was responsible for organising last August30's referendum on self-determination, in which about 80per cent of the population voted for independence from Indonesia. Within days, anti-independence militia backed by Indonesian security forces began a murderous campaign of terror and destruction across the territory.

Professor Chopra served as an election monitor and was evacuated from Dili on September 6 after witnessing the destruction of the capital and the forced deportation of tens of thousands of East Timorese.

Link to main page on East Timor.

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