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South Sudan: Lessons from Timor-Leste

Free – but the challenges are far from over. Photo: bbcworldservice/flickr

Like many, I was moved by the joy and happiness of the South Sudanese over the birth of their new nation. Unfortunately, South Sudan’s future may not be quite as harmonious as its independence celebrations. State structures and institutions will have to be built from scratch, which means that internal power struggles are almost a certainty.

A recent TIME blog has outlined a few lessons that UN member #193 could learn from #191, Timor-Leste:

-don’t underestimate the legacy of violence;
-avoid letting foreign workers become a source of political tension;
-and listen to Norway when setting up systems of checks and balances to track (staggeringly high) oil revenues.

To these, let me add two more recommendations, addressed specifically to UNMISS, the newly established UN peacekeeping mission to South Sudan:

1) South Sudan, much like Timor-Leste at the time of  independence, has only a small pool of candidates qualified to fill crucial positions in government and the security sector. Those with high levels of training and education often have low credentials with the resistance, and could be accused of having cooperated with the enemy instead of fighting and hiding in the mountains.

The Government of South Sudan has launched an ambitious program to transform the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) — which was a guerrilla force — into a professional military one (much like Falintil’s transformation into F-FDTL in Timor Leste). Members of the Southern Sudan Police Service (SSPS), on the other hand, include not only demobilized SPLA combatants but also former Sudanese police and new recruits. As Timor-Leste’s 2006 crisis demonstrated, such divisions are susceptible to manipulation. If UNMISS gets involved in SSPS vetting processes – and they should – it will be of the utmost importance to ensure transparency and the full public support of the government and key national figures.

2) Besides stabilizing the security situation and ensuring the protection of civilians, the UNMISS mandate also includes strengthening the capacity of the SSPS. The experience in Timor-Leste shows that UN Police are far better at the first two than at the last. To strengthen the SSPS, the UN Police needs to institutionalize capacity building, centralize planning and outline a clear policing doctrine. And not all police-contributing countries should be in charge of that process. As we saw in Timor-Leste,  it makes no sense for local police  to be trained and mentored by police from nations with suspect training practices and questionable human rights records.