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"The UN is divided between the exotic scenario of Spielberg's Indiana Jones series and the 'political correctness' of US academic thinking, and this combination gives rise to a somewhat neo-colonial approach".
Pedro Bacelar de Vasconcelos

Source: Público

Date: 26 December 2000

Interviewee: Pedro Bacelar de Vasconcelos
Byline: Rui Baptista and Raposo Antunes

The UN's neo-colonial vision of Timor

Pedro Bacelar de Vasconcelos resigned because he believed the Timorese are not being involved sufficiently in the transition process.

"The UN is divided between the exotic scenario of Spielberg's Indiana Jones series and the 'political correctness' of US academic thinking, and this combination gives rise to a somewhat neo-colonial approach".  This is the view of constitutionalist Pedro Bacelar de Vasconcelos, who recently resigned from his post in the East Timor Transitional Administration.  The former civil Governor of Braga [Portugal] outlines the difficulties he met with ever since his arrival in Dili, and describes how tension between him and his American Head of Department steadily grew.

In an interview with PÚBLICO, Pedro Bacelar de Vasconcelos explains why he resigned from his UNTAET job, talks about the problems he had with Peter Galbraith, his Head of Department, and expresses his satisfaction with the news that Monsignor Ximenes Belo believes it is possible to adhere to the timetable for independence.  "I was probably one of the first people to tell him that it was highly dangerous to prolong or perpetuate UN presence in the territory's administration for longer than had been anticipated", he says.

Question (Público):  What led you to resign from your job with UNTAET?
Answer (Pedro Bacelar de Vasconcelos):  ...  If I had been looking for reasons to leave, I would have found them by the end of my first week.  I went to Dili with a clear idea of what the mission was and of what was expected of me.  Basically, I was to monitor and support the election preparations process and lay the groundwork for the fundamental law [Constitution].  As a constitutional specialist, I was also to provide what was necessary for the normative basis of the legal framework.  In all sincerity, I am quite sure that the Timorese would never approve a Constitution that did not enshrine respect human rights, or that was not in accordance with the principle of separation of powers, in a state of law, in line with international community requirements.

Q:  What went so wrong that you resigned after 2 months?
A:  The conditions I needed in order to carry out my mission were not in place, specifically, the working conditions I encountered in the Department [of Political, Constitutional and Electoral Affairs of the ET Transitional Administration], of which I was deputy head.

Q:  Were there clashes with the American Head of Department, Peter Galbraith?
A:  There were incompatible approaches, at all levels, relating to the way in which the task ought to be carried out.  On one hand, it had to do with the UN's own inherent limitations.  The UN is an international organisation, not a State, but what it is doing in Timor is what States usually do in relation to their citizens.  The UN is administering the territory, guaranteeing its external security, ensuring internal order, preparing reconstruction projects, providing basic needs, taxing public services.  On the other hand, all the structures being established are, by nature, transitional.  The human resources, the very culture of an international organisation such as this, have their limitations:  they are preconceived ideas and are limited by their experiences.  Their assessment and interpretation of the Timorese political process is necessarily based on experiences in Yugoslavia, Croatia and Kossova, Cambodia, Sierra Leon or South Africa.  This vision limits their views and understanding of Timorese reality and of the options for concrete strategies to develop the process.

Q:  Is the UN incapable of understanding the reality of the situation on the ground?
A:  I am not sure it would be reasonable to expect a substantially better and more efficient effort from the UN.  The UN is divided between the exotic scenario of Spielberg's Indiana Jones series and the 'political correctness' of US academic thinking.  The result of these two approaches is that, in terms of functioning for example, there is no real coordination. Coordination is undertaken in plenary sessions, attended by all the international aid workers, reminiscent of NYPD Hill Street Blues, as if it were a special operation, as if it were a film in which an immediate response to an emergency humanitarian aid situation had to be found.  But, the humanitarian emergency phase ended a long time ago.  Now we are in a phase of stabilisation of transitional structures, mixed structures, with
entirely Timorese bodies such as the national Council, which is a kind of proto-parliament.  The working methods of the UN are still those employed on an expedition.

Q:  Have you alerted the Portuguese Government about these issues?
A:  This time, I was not there representing the Portuguese Government, although the executive did back my nomination.  The Portuguese Government monitored the whole process, was kept updated on all the problems and their possible outcomes.  It always gave me its full support.

Q:  Did you consider the possibility of staying on in Timor to help change the workings of the UN from the inside?
A:  I had a clear idea of the situation after the first week, but stayed on for two months to explore all the possibilities of getting through what I regarded to be essential responses to the territory's specific circumstances within the timeframe.  However, various circumstances made it unviable.

Q:  Are you not afraid of being accused of having thrown in the towel after the first setback?
A:  No.  I stoically put up with all kinds of adversities for two months…

Q:  Two months is not a long time - hardly enough time to get to know the territory…
A:  I agree, it was not enough time to get to know the whole territory…

Q:  Who, precisely, was systematically opposing your views?
A:  The Head of the Department of Political, Constitutional and Electoral Affairs, to whom I was Deputy Head.

Q:  Are you referring to the US diplomat Peter Galbraith?
A:  Yes.  My resignation became irreversible because it was simply impossible for two people with such different views on and ways of reacting to the Timorese reality to carry on working in the same department.

Q:  What was the last straw?
A:  There were several problems that exacerbated over time.  Basically, what needed to be done was to prevent, in this final phase, UN from the risk of being accused of usurpation or abusive interference in what is essentially a task for the Timorese, i.e. the task of they themselves giving their country a Constitution and political system that is tailored to their own needs. The Timorese players and their organisations needed to be upgraded, the value of the mixed institutions that had been created needed to be enhanced, and the centre of the whole political process in this final phase needed to be based on that.  This is, in fact, in line with the thinking of the Special Representative of the UNSG, publicly expressed over the last few months. Incompatibility [with Peter Galbraith] reached such an extent that it meant that any delay or failure in the elaboration of the legal framework that will shape the electoral process, or in the launch of the Department's initiatives would, naturally, be blamed on me.  As I could not be answerable for what was being done, resignation was my only option.

Q:  In other words, you wanted the Timorese to be given more responsibilities in the period of transition to independence…
A:  It wasn't a matter of giving them more responsibility, but of involving them in the process and creating opportunities in which they could take over the process.  The vaguely neo-colonial approach, resulting from the marriage between the politically correct American academic and Indiana Jones attitude in exotic scenarios, gives rise to a gaping inability to understand the Timorese, to get on with them, and to understand what is important for this last lap of transition to independence. For example, the civic education project is vital.  Civic education does not mean teaching the Timorese the meaning of democracy - after all, it was they who, in 1999, taught the whole world a lesson in democracy.  It means familiarising them with the tools of representative democracy because, obviously, these tools are not part of cultural tradition in the territory. It was very important for the project to have been launched in September, as planned, and to have involved the thousands of students who were unable to get in to University, and the young unemployed people, who were to have been channelled into a civic education initiative that would cover the whole ... [Ed. text missing in original text]

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