Thursday, April 14, 2011

East Timor takeover requires policy update

AS Timorese police take over responsibility from the UN, their role and function needs fresh thinking. After 10-plus years of UN and international tutelage, shoot-from-the-hip rhetoric is obscuring urgent police development.

"Violence will meet violence," boomed Timorese Police Commander Longuinhos Monteiro at a press conference in Dili on March 31. A few days later, he told Timorese television that the police weren't ready to provide security for elections scheduled for next year and needed to buy more guns.

Monteiro speaks with new authority. On March 27, the UN handed him and his force, Policia Nacional de Timor-Leste, primary responsibility for policing. UN police have had primary responsibility since the breakdown of law and order in 2006. Last month's handover ended prematurely the previously agreed (and frequently criticised) process by which districts and units would not be handed over until it was determined they were ready.

Among the areas that repeatedly failed the joint assessment was Dili. The problems in the failing districts and units were nothing to do with violence, but with the fact that policies and processes were either not known or not followed.

The paramilitary bluster of the handover parade was illustrative of what the UN has bequeathed, with lots of heavy weaponry on display. It was hard to see much up-to-date policing policy substance in many parts of the PNTL beyond uniforms, guns and equipment. The UN - due to stay until the end of next year in a monitoring capacity - must be holding its breath that nothing goes wrong.

The Police Commander's rhetoric gives a false picture.. The very good news from Timor-Leste is that this is a much different and safer country now than when large parts collapsed into violence in 2006. Levels of reported crime are low, and there is a bustle and confidence on the streets of Dili and many other parts of the country.

Leaked results from a UN survey record high levels of public contentment with the police. There is very little to do for the PNTL's many special units tasked with managing public order. The major crime issue remains sky-high rates of domestic violence, something that should obviously not be met with "more violence" and which requires a more sensitive response.

In the course of his media commentary, the Police Commander also said that any PNTL that acted improperly in the course of their duties would be subject to investigation. This is welcome, because accountability remains the major issue in his police force.

Since the police force was formed in 2000, just a handful of internal investigation cases have resulted in dismissal. Many of the PNTL named in the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry into the crisis of 2006 remain in their jobs.

Late last year, the government decided to "certify" all officers with outstanding allegations against them, including murder and serious assault. This made a mockery of the original intention of the certification process, which was to restore the credibility of the PNTL.

Notwithstanding the cases already dismissed, there are more than 1425 disciplinary cases - an average of one for every 2.5 police officers - still to be addressed.

The Timorese government is asserting its new-found sovereignty over the security sector, which means the international community's influence is slight. Simply put, the Timorese police and government are fed up with advice from well-meaning foreigners. Their attitude is understandable.

After 11 years of plans and programs developed with minimal Timorese input and delivered by international advisers that cannot speak Tetun, who can really blame them? With coffers swollen by petroleum revenues from the Timor Sea, the government is adamant it wants to pursue police reform on its own terms, which do not necessarily accord with internationally accepted best practice. Monteiro's statement reflects that. However, much of this reform appears more form than substance.

Training courses are frequently postponed or sparsely attended, a sure signal of the low degree of importance attached to professional self-improvement. There remains much less attention devoted to the less glamorous "nuts and bolts" of institutional development and little real interest on the part of many police officers in the subject.

There seems no reason for martial rhetoric and more guns; there is every need to re-focus attention on the less glamorous - but ultimately much more useful - task of strengthening still weak accountability systems and back-office procedures and enforcing discipline.

Monteiro is an extremely capable person, as is his civilian boss, Francisco da Costa Guterres, the Secretary of State for Security. There are many able and decent people in both their organisations. Now they face a test of their abilities. With new sovereignty comes new responsibility. The PNTL urgently needs a culture of accountability, not a culture of violence.

By Gordon Peake who worked on police reform in Timor-Leste from 2008 to this year. He will soon take up a position at the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Program at ANU. This article first appeared on the Lowy Institute's blog at Opinion, The Australian

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