After its bloody struggle for independence from Indonesia, East Timor became the world’s 192nd sovereign state in 2002: Timor-Leste. Today it may have become the world’s newest failed state. A failed state is a country that cannot guarantee even minimal political benefits — especially basic security — to its inhabitants. Recent examples include Afghanistan, Angola, Burundi, Congo,
Liberia, Nepal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and the Sudan. Usually there is insufficient money to pay for essential human services, but the defining trait of a state’s failure is the emergence of insurgencies against it, usually rebel organizations reflecting ethnic tensions.
Democracy is not an easy accomplishment, regardless of how it happens to be attempted. It is far easier to carry out a successful nonviolent resistance that overthrows a dictator than to replace him with a stable, effective, representative rule of law. The lingering problems in the Philippines and Ukraine, to mention only two cases, remind us of that. I believe it might actually have been possible to get rid of Saddam Hussein with a nonviolent movement — but that would not have resolved any of the conflicts that are so visible in Iraq today, as it tries to establish a democratic regime.
We have the makings of a policy called "Responsibility to Protect", which will oblige the international community to intervene when necessary to protect citizens from their own state, as in cases of genocide, for instance. But there is no comparable policy being formulated that will oblige the international community to stabilize a country politically after the blood ceases to be shed. The citizenry are supposed to be left respectfully to their own devices when the foreign troops have left. Anything else would be considered egregious interference — a violation of their sovereign rights.
But of course there can be no more difficult challenge than the establishment of an effective, autonomous government. The United Nations kept peacekeepers in the new state, Timor-Leste, until a year or so ago, attempting to ease the transition to independent governance.
And now the whole thing seems to have fallen apart. Marauding gangs of rebels (see photo) are roaming the streets of Dili, burning houses with people inside. Government officials state that there is an attempted coup going on, but they don’t know by whom. In March a portion of the Timorese army went on strike, complaining about bad working conditions and ethnic discrimination against members from the western part of the country. They were summarily fired but took to the hills to form a rebel band. Now the government of Timor-Leste has had to beg neighboring states to send troops to pacify their country. Australia, New Zealand, and Malaysia have been doing so. Possibly the arrival of these interventionary groups will be able to subdue the roaming militias that have been forming over the past week, as the inhabitants of Dili sought to defend themselves and also to exact revenge upon the violent thugs that have brought chaos to their town.
So apparently Timor-Leste is the newest failed state, having lost the capacity to provide security and order for their inhabitants. There are no rules defining what should happen next. Indeed, most of the most urgent international crises today are problems of this very kind: What should be done for, or with, the citizens of a failed state – and by whom? Canada has just pledged to keep troops in Afghanistan for another two years, as the Karzai government seeks to become effective. The United States will surely try to leave Iraq as soon as possible, if the new autonomous government of that miserable country can manage its own affairs. But there are other cases — Sudan and Congo, for example — where the international community has not attempted as much as in Iraq or Afghanistan, and no one can say what should be done for them.
For the moment, however, we can thank Australia, New Zealand, and Malaysia for their welcome intervention in Dili. May they help Timor-Leste become a success story instead of a failed state.