Courtesy Reuters

Inventing East Timor


U.N. officials in Kosovo used to refer to the bombed-out territory they administered as "the empty shell." Then many of them were moved to East Timor, the U.N.'s latest hardship case, where they discovered the true meaning of emptiness. East Timor lacks the most basic necessities: not just doctors, dentists, accountants, lawyers, and police, but also tables, chairs, pots, and pans. Even in Dili, the capital, stop signs, traffic signals, and streetlights are nowhere to be found. It would not be far from the truth to say that East Timor has no economy. Projected government revenue for 2000 is $16 million, and most of that will come from duties on the liquor, cigarettes, cars, and other commodities consumed by foreign U.N. officials, journalists, and the employees of nongovernmental organizations.

Yet today this impoverished island is the laboratory for an experiment in what is known at the United Nations as "nation-building." The U.N. Transitional Administration for East Timor (UNTAEt) is not just helping the new country's government -- it is that government. UNTAET issues postage and UNTAET signs treaties. At the airport in Dili, a Timorese in a U.N. uniform puts an "UNTAET" stamp in each passport. In a fine if unintended piece of symbolism, the U.N. now occupies the "Governor's House," a lovely, colonnaded structure facing the ocean that served as the headquarters for both the Portuguese and then the Indonesian colonial administrations. Sergio Vieira de Mello, a Brazilian U.N. official who functions as the "transitional administrator," works from the same second-floor office that once housed the Indonesian governor.

The U.N. plays a similar role in Kosovo, and in the last decade it has taken on many national responsibilities in Namibia, Cambodia, Mozambique, and Eastern Slavonia. But until East Timor, the U.N. had never taken over the administration of a country with no preexisting institutions whatsoever. Nor has the organization ever enjoyed the kind of free hand it exercises in East

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