UNAMET: 11 June - 14 September 1999

By Gemma Seidita Post date: Feb 03, 2016


The United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) was created in 1999 by the adoption of United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 1246 on 11 June. UNAMET was created with the specific purpose of organizing and conducting the East Timor Special Autonomy Referendum (known as the “popular consensus”). In the popular consensus, the East Timorese would vote on whether they wanted to become a special autonomous region within Indonesia, or reject that provision and become an independent state. UNAMET was responsible for creating the ballot, coordinating the logistics of the election and running the election. In addition, UNAMET was also responsible for providing the Timorese with an entirely neutral education about the options in the referendum so that they could make an informed decision in the popular consensus. This was achieved by mobilizing UNAMET workers all over East Timor in addition to a multimedia campaign which was carried out in four languages: Tetum, Bahasa Indonesia, Portuguese and English. Though security concerns initially delayed the election, it was eventually held on 30 August 1999, with a voter turnout rate of 98.6%. East Timor voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence. Following the election, militias backed by the TNI (the Indonesian Military) waged a mass violence campaign that displaced 400,000 people, killed 1000-2000, destroyed 70% of East Timor’s buildings and infrastructure, and nearly all of the electric grids. Because UNAMET had no enforcement powers, and were relying on Indonesia for security, they were powerless in the midst of chaos. Despite promises to stay in East Timor until the country had successfully transitioned to an independent state, UNAMET was evacuated just two weeks after the election ended.  The projected cost of repairing the damage in the weeks following the election ranged from $700 million to $1 billion USD.

Key Lessons Learned

  • People will be enthusiastic about an election if they believe that their vote really matters
  • Engaging all facets of the host country’s population, and offering educational content in multiple media will contribute to a high percentage of voter turnout
  • It is important to be aware of a country’s historical, social and cultural context before engaging in any kind of mission
  • For complicated and demanding missions, ample planning time must be allotted to ensure safety and effectiveness of the mission
  • It is of the utmost importance to plan for a worst-case scenario, especially when working in countries with a particularly tumultuous security climate
  • Security concerns should be fully addressed, even if the discussion of these concerns may offend an involved party. Safety trumps cordiality

Background and East Timor demographics

In 1975, Portugal dissolved its colonial empire and granted its remaining colonies, including East Timor, independence. Just days after East Timor became independent, Indonesia invaded it and used force to crush any resistance. Most major world powers did not challenge Indonesia’s aggression, and during the occupation of East Timor from 1975 to 1999, over 100,000 Timorese died at the hands of the Indonesians (East Timor country profile- overview). 

The plight of the East Timorese began to get international attention in 1991 after TNI forces opened fire on a funeral procession in Dili and killed 250 people (Ibid). The international community, especially Portugal, continued to pressure Indonesia about the East Timor situation throughout the 90s. This pressure, coupled with Indonesia’s worsening financial situation led it to consider an agreement with the UN and Portugal about permitting a popular consensus vote for East Timorese independence in August of 1999. This agreement, Security Council Resolution 1236, was signed by the three bodies on 5 May 1999 (Wilde 182).

Per the resolution’s prescriptions, Indonesia and Portugal could come to East Timor to observe the election, but were not allowed to campaign (Eurich 141).  What would end up being one of the most significant stipulations of the agreement was that Indonesia would be in charge of all security for the UN during its time in East Timor, despite the request for an international peacekeeping force by several UN officers. An an anonymous UNAMET official pointed out  that “If the world’s fourth biggest country, and respected member of the UN stands up in New York and promises to look after security, it’s very hard to say to them, ‘We don’t believe you’” (East Timor Crisis). As a show of good faith and diplomacy, the UN did not provide any alternative security measures even though there was evidence that the Indonesian forces may not be able to secure peace. In fact, just hours after the agreement was signed, the future site of the UNAMET offices were attacked and looted, and Indonesia did not make any changes to their security plans in that area and the UN did not request additional security provisions (Toole 244, 247).

In light of UN Security Council Resolution 1236, the same body passed Resolution 1246 on 11 June 1999 which named UNAMET as the UN mission that would carry out resolution 1236 and aid East Timor in the transition period following the election. UNAMET had a lot to accomplish in just over two month’s time.


Per Resolution 1236’s stipulations, the following countries and bodies were to be involved in the election process to varying degrees: the UN, Indonesia and Portugal.

  • The United Nations, through UNAMET was tasked with organizing the popular referendum, educating the populace about the implications the two options being voted on in the election and counting the ballots following the election. UNAMET was the only body allowed to organize any kind of information about the election or do any sort of campaigning (Wilde 141). UNAMET hired over 4000 East Timorese citizens to assist in organizing the logistical aspects of the mission (Eurich 141).
  • Indonesia was not allowed to campaign, but was allowed to observe the election. Additionally, they were in charge of maintaining a secure environment during the mission and after the election.
  • Portugal was not allowed to campaign, but was allowed to observe the election.
  • An unnamed independent electoral commission was established by the UN to observe all stages of the election process and arbitrate any conflicts that may arise.
  • East Timor was not considered to be an actor in this mission. Even though the international community did not recognize Indonesia’s occupation and control of East Timor, the territory was not a state but rather a “self-determination unit with an entitlement to alter its external status, ” and thus was not involved in UN conversations, agreements, or resolutions (Wilde 405).

Objectives and organization


The UN utilizes various models of electoral missions, and UNAMET was characterized as an organization and conduct mission, which is the most demanding type of model as it not only requires educating the population about the election and monitoring the fairness, but also organizing registration, voting and determining the results (Toole 228).  UNAMET’s mission statement outlined its use of a three-pronged approach to organizing and conducting the election:

  • A political component ensuring fair and free elections
  • An electoral component which handled the logistics of registration and voting
  • An informational component to inform East Timorese about the ballot options, voting procedures, and related content in an unbiased matter (Eurich 140)

Mission schedule

UNAMET sought to follow a strict schedule, which did not allow a lot of room for error or delay. The Secretary General typically requires an 18 month planning period for UN electoral organization and conduct missions (Toole 228). UNAMET’s schedule below only allowed for two months of planning:

  • 10 May- 15 June: Operational planning and deployment
  • 10 May- 5 August: Public information programmes and voter education
  • 13 June- 17 July: Preparation and voter registration
  • 18 July- 23 July: Exhibition of lists and challenges in the process thus far
  • 20 July- 5 August: Political campaign where both sides were presented to the populace
  • 5 August: Election by ballot
  • 6-7 August: Cooling off period before transition beings (Eurich 140).


The budget allotted for UNAMET was $53 million USD (Duplain).


When the first political officers representing UNAMET arrived in East Timor they immediately became aware of a pro-autonomy/ anti-independence campaign propagated by the militia who were believed to be backed by the TNI. In some villages, those who did not show support for the pro-autonomy campaign through public declaration often had their houses looted or even burned down (Martin 43). Since UNAMET lacked any enforcing powers against the militia and their only security was provided by the TNI, who were later confirmed to be instructing the militia, UNAMET focused instead on making sure their information campaign would provide as much neutral information as possible about the election process.

As soon as the information and electoral officers arrived in East Timor they were divided into teams and sent across the country, even to the most remote villages, in order to explain details of the voting process including what was being voted on, how the procedures would work and the political consequences of the vote (Eurich 141). In addition to reaching out to individuals, UNAMET also met with community leaders like chiefs and clergy in the Catholic church so they could help disseminate information within their own communities (Eurich 143). 

There was also a large media campaign in fulfilment of the information component. While UN offices in Geneva and New York were tasked with notifying East Timor citizens living abroad, UNAMET was solely responsible for the media campaign in East Timor. UNAMET’s media department was run by Ric Curnow, a journalist who had been in East Timor since 1998 and Indonesia prior to that (Eurich 145). Curnow took advantage of already existing offices to disseminate information through print and ensured that UNAMET’s webpage was frequently updated with current information. Additionally, UNAMET also created a radio station devoted to providing information about the popular consensus. His most influential media campaign was the television campaign: in 1998 he became the first person to install a satellite uplink in East Timor and he used that to broadcast a daily half-hour segment on UNAMET and the popular consultation which ran in English, Indonesian, Tetum and Portuguese (Eurich 144). During the campaign portion of the the media campaign, people on both sides of the vote would be interviewed, and equal numbers of males and females were interviewed in order to present the most neutral coverage possible. The media campaign, especially the TV broadcast, was extremely well-received, but critics pointed out that in a country where over 50% of people are illiterate, and a considerable number of people do not have access to TVs, radios or the internet, these measures may not be effective enough on their own. In order to address this concern, the media team created “discovery vehicles” which were essentially land rovers with tape decks and speakers attached that would drive into remote areas and play pre-recorded tracks with the core messages about UNAMET and the popular consensus (Eurich 143).

Pro-autonomy forces complained that UNAMET was favoring independence supporters in hiring its local staff. While an investigation launched by UNAMET showed that there was no conscious bias in their hiring process, it is possible that factors such as the population being overwhelming pro-independence, and  that those who were in favour of independence were more excited about the election process which may have contributed to this perception. Additionally, UNAMET needed English speakers, and those who spoke English were generally university-educated and overwhelmingly in support of independence (Martin 41). It is worth noting that these employees would have completed a thorough neutrality training, and  to the knowledge of the UN and the independent monitoring companies that were hired to oversee the process, this neutrality was strictly adhered to (Martin 41).

Once the populace was thoroughly educated on the content of the ballot and the voting procedures, UNAMET had to coordinate the voting registration and the actual vote. Initially it appeared that UNAMET would follow its original schedule for the voting and registration dates, but communication issues within UNAMET as well the security climate prevented the registration from beginning on 22 June. The Secretary-General waited as long as possible for the security climate to improve, but because Indonesia was still demanding that the popular consensus be held in August, the Secretary-General agreed to have the registration on the latest possible date, 16 July (Martin 49). By early August the security environment was still unsafe so the Secretary-General delayed the election which was supposed to take place on 5 August indefinitely, with the understanding that it would still have to take place in August. The climate had not calmed down by the end of August, but the Secretary-General decided to allow the election to take place on 30 August anyway. On election day, there were thousands of volunteers mobilized to assist anyone with questions, and compared to the preceding weeks there was almost no instances of violence, especially around the voting stations which were very secure. East Timorese who voted answered the following questions:

1)  Do you accept the proposed special autonomy for East Timor within the state of the Republic of Indonesia?

2)  Do you reject the proposed special autonomy for East Timor, leading to East Timor’s separation from Indonesia? (Duplain)

UNAMET returned the election results on 5 September which showed that 78.5% voters were in favor of rejecting the proposed autonomy and beginning a process of transition toward independence. The option to transform East Timor into a Special Autonomous Region within Indonesia received 21.5% of the vote (The UN Role in Promoting Democracy: Between Ideals and Reality).


Even though UNAMET had significantly less time than typical UN electoral organization and conduct missions, and significantly fewer personnel working on the mission, it was successful in establishing the election and voting procedures, monitoring the fairness of the election and educating the voters (Toole 229). This was largely do to their informational component. In less than three months, UNAMET’s media team produced over 700,000 pieces of printed information, five hours of daily radio broadcast,  30 minutes of daily television broadcast and updated web content in all four languages (Eurich 142). The television programs were especially influential because they featured actual people from East Timor, and their television had previously been limited to Indonesian broadcasts (Eurich 143). Additionally, the broadcasts were also humorous, and several of the broadcasts became staples of popular culture in the years following the election (Eurich 143). Overall, this generated enthusiasm for the election process, while keeping people informed.

The other methods of extensive outreach resulted in the creation of a relationship of trust between UNAMET and the East Timorese, which is believed to have played a large role in the participation percentages of eligible voters. Even though the security climate was volatile during registration and during the actual vote, turnout was high. Five days after voter registration, over 100,000 people had already registered to vote (Martin 53). By the time of the actual vote on 30 August, 451,792 potential voters were registered, and of those voters, 98.5% actually went to the polls and voted (Eurich 148).

UNAMET’s work was not without shortcomings. One major problem UNAMET encountered was communication within itself and between other UN bodies located outside of East Timor. Communication within UNAMET was hindered because UNAMET workers were afraid to use the internet hotspots where militias would frequently lurk; unfortunately, UNAMET did not have the foresight to arrange for security in these locations and in some areas, the local hotspot was the only method a worker had of communicating back to the headquarters in Dili (Eurich 147). Communication with outside UN bodies had a more tangible impact on the East Timor mission. Due to personnel and logistical limitations, and miscommunication with the Secretary General’s office, the voting registration date had to be postponed because a number of the materials needed for registration had not yet arrived (Martin 49). Perhaps the biggest flaw in the mission was that the Secretary-General allowed the vote to take place in an unsafe environment, despite language in Resolution 1236 that specifically forbade that (Toole 247). Still UNAMET more or less met all of its goals, even if there were some minor issues along the way. Unfortunately, its popular consensus had some negative unforeseen consequences.


Despite the fact that UNAMET was largely successful in running a fair, free and representative election with a high voter turn-out that met almost every condition laid out in Resolutions 1236 and 1246, a lack of planning for worst-case scenarios resulted in a worst-case scenario becoming reality.  Immediately following the announcement of the election’s results, anti-independence gangs and militias backed by Indonesian troops responded brutally, and rampaged and plundered across East Timor driving thousands out of their homes (Eurich 148). UNAMET’s offices were some of the first targets of the attacks, and at least 15 officials were killed (Eurich 148).

Because UNAMET had no contingency plan for dealing with any kind of violent reaction to the election, all they could do was attempt to send observations back to the UN, but were pinned down in their headquarters and thus were unable to observe directly (Report of the Security Council Mission to Jakarta and Dili 9).  In response to the crisis, the UN organized a mission to Jakarta and then to Dili to discuss the violence and come to a solution. A briefing with UNAMET revealed that security conditions had been deteriorating leading up to the election, despite previous remarks by Indonesia that suggested otherwise. UNAMET said that the fact that the Indonesian security had not intervened “...left the Mission in no doubt that the [Indonesian] military and policy authorities had been complicit in organizing and supporting the actions of the militias.” (Ibid 2). 

In response to this accusation, the Indonesian Defence Minister, General Wiranto, admitted no responsibility for the attacks and suggested that it was UNAMET’s fault because the losing minority thought their election was biased. During this talk, he also rejected the UN’s pleas for allowing international peacekeepers to end the conflict, and instead proposed Indonesian martial rule to stabilize the situation (Ibid 3).  As the attacks carried on, the situation worsened and eventually the United Nations had to evacuate UNAMET on 14 September to Australia (Chomsky). On 15 September Indonesia agreed to UN Security Council Resolution 1264 which would allow for an international peacekeeping force, The International Force for East Timor (INTERFET) to help stabilize the situation, but by this point widespread damage had already occurred (Wilde 405).

Following the violence in East Timor, over 400,000 people were displaced, the majority of East Timor’s homes, schools, infrastructure, and irrigation systems were destroyed, as were 70% of the buildings and almost 100% of the electric grid. In addition, anywhere from 1000 to 2000 people were killed (Eurich 148). The cost to rebuild following the damage was evaluated at $700 million to $1 billion USD (Toole 250).


UNAMET’s success as an organization and conduct electoral mission is remarkable considering the amount of planning time and number of workers it had at its disposal. The massive amounts of voters who registered, as well as the voter turnout are testaments to the effectiveness of their mission.  Unfortunately, the lack of planning time resulted in a terrible fallout following the otherwise successful election.

One of the biggest issues with the planning process was that the UN, Indonesia and Portugal did not allot sufficient time to investigate the security situation in East Timor before signing Resolution 1236. Had the UN sent in an investigative team before the agreement was signed, instead of after, they would have realized that the TNI was backing the East Timorese militia in their violent anti-independence campaign, which may have led the UN to require an international peacekeeping force. Additionally, East Timorese representatives were not at all involved in the agreement process, and since they know their homeland best they may have provided insights into the problematic security conditions and legacy of violence that had been present, which would have further informed the UN Security Council. Immediately following the violent outburst, many scholars said that the pro-autonomy response could have easily been anticipated given trends of violence in East Timor throughout the Indonesian occupation. Lastly, not including some type of contingency plan, should there be any negative reactions to the election results, was a huge mistake. It is possible the UN did not want to appear as if they had presumed that East Timor would vote for independence but having no contingency plan at all is worse than appearing presumptuous. Any time an election could result in a massive change, such as a territory transforming from a pseudo colony to an independent democracy, at least some degree of retaliation should be expected from the losing side, and UNAMET was ultimately unprepared.

It is difficult to say whether UNAMET’s mission left East Timor worse-off than when it arrived. Currently, East Timor is still in the transitional phases of democracy and is one of the poorest nations but its security situation has improved considerably. It is hard to rationalize why the UN allowed such a complex mission to occur with a limited amount of planning time, but hopefully this case will serve as a cautionary tale for future democracy promotion missions.

Work cites

Chomsky, Noam. "East Timor Retrospective." Chomsky.info. Le Monde Diplomatique, 1 Oct. 1999. Web. 29 Mar. 2015. <http://www.chomsky.info/articles/199910--.htm>.

Duplain, Julian. "Q & A: East Timor Referendum." BBC News Online. BBC, 24 Aug.1999. Web.    29 Mar. 2015. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/special_report/ 1999/05/99/east_timor/        429053.stm>.

"East Timor Country Profile - Overview." BBC News. BBC, 17 Feb. 2015. Web. 20 Feb. 2015.   <http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-14919009>.

"East Timor Crisis." East Timor Crisis - as the UN Mission Leaves, Their HQ Burns.Converge, 15 Sept. 1999. Web. 29 Mar. 2015.  <http://www.converge.org.nz/pma/          ethq.htm>.

Eurich, Hanja. Factors of Success in UN Mission Communication Strategies in Post-conflict Settings a Critical Assessment of the UN Missions in East Timor and Nepal. Berlin: Logos, 2010. Print.

Martin, Ian. Self-determination in East Timor: The United Nations, the Ballot, and International Intervention. Boulder, Co.: Lynne Rienner, 2001. Print.

"Report of the Security Council Mission to Jakarta and Dili (8 to 12 September 1999)." Www.securitycouncilreport.org. United Nations, 14 Sept. 1999. Web. 29 Mar.2015. <http://www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf        {65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9}/TL S1999976.pdf>.

"The UN Role in Promoting Democracy: Between Ideals and Reality." Ed. Edward Newman and Roland Rich. United Nations University Press, 1 Jan. 2004.Web.30 Mar. 2015. <http://archive.unu.edu/unupress/sample-chapters/UNrole.pdf>.

Toole, Jennifer. "A False Sense of Security: Lessons Learned from the United Nations Organization and Conduct Mission in East Timor." American University International Law Review 16, no. 1 (2000): 199-267.

Wilde, Ralph. International Territorial Administration: How Trusteeship and the Civilizing Mission Never Went Away. Oxford [u.a.: Oxford U, 2008. Print.