Jim Della-Giacoma is an Associate Director at the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum at the Social Science Research Council in New York City.

In February 2008, the UN Secretary-General said, in releasing a key report, that security sector reform in any country will not succeed unless there is commitment, leadership and capacity from key figures and institutions in that state. I recalled these words this week when reading his latest semi-annual report on the UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT), which showed that the UN’s efforts t0 assist with a 'comprehensive review of the security sector' in Timor-Leste are moving at a very pedestrian pace.

After a June 2006 assessment mission, the previous Secretary-General noted that problems in the Timorese army and police which brought on the crisis that year were interconnected. He wrote that a holistic approach was needed, recommending a comprehensive review, involving all relevant parts of government and civil society, of the future role and needs of the security sector. The UNMIT mandate was carefully calibrated to task the UN mission only the limited role of assisting a review, leaving the most difficult task of conducting reform to the government.

But even after setting this modest task, two and a half years later we are still waiting for substantive progress on the review. Last week, in two brief paragraphs, the Secretary-General reported the mission's 'security sector review project' had resulted in the formation of a project board that had met three times to approve a 'training-of-trainers course' for unarmed civil security, funded a seminar, planned future seminars, had given in-principle approval for a public opinion survey on security issues, conducted some radio maintenance, and was planning to hire a few 'experts' for the MoD and parliament.

These projects hardly constitute a comprehensive review and are more like the bread and butter of a UNDP country team than a core function of a Security Council-mandated peace operation.

As the review has idled, the goal posts have been moved and rules changed on who is responsible for internal security. In February 2008, the government created the Joint Command to deal with the attacks on the president and prime minister, without the knowledge and consent of the UN. By doing so, the police, who were nominally under UN control, were put under command of the army in an internal security operation, overturning the constitutional order. Simmering tensions and a lack of clear and distinct missions for each force were left unresolved. From March, the resumption of policing responsibilities will begin as the UN hands back control district-by-district to the PNTL, taking the last remaining teeth out the UNMIT mandate.

In this month’s report, the Secretary-General wrote that the larger effort to change the security laws was 'mired in a lack of clarity about the relationship between policy and related legislation'. The International Crisis Group, in a report also released last week, noted that the 'first logical step towards reform' were stalled as 'the government and the president seem unimpressed by the assistance being offered by the UNMIT Security Sector Support Unit (SSU), and there is a lack of coordination between and among international and national security stakeholders.'

As the UN struggles globally to develop its doctrine on security sector reform (SSR), there are lessons to be learnt from Timor-Leste. The democratically-elected government has been consistently uninterested in UN help and is intent on doing things its way. Reforming the security sector is one of the most sensitive of issues in a post-conflict country and international actors often lack the understanding and political touch for effective involvement. The UN mission misjudged the urgency of the task; it took a year to set up its SSU and struggled to staff with it with experienced people. By the time it started to think of how the review might be conceived, a new government had been elected with its own program and plans.

While the UN in New York has worked on its SSR doctrine, it has neglected the practice in the field, where SSR has often been seen as a technical exercise conducted by 'experts' drawn from armies and police forces rather than a political effort involving elected officials. A separate skill set is required along with a nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the local political context; this is more important than any technical expertise. In New York, the UN’s SSR efforts are struggling to gain a foothold as the UN’s work in this area is seen as 'cover' for Western interference in the internal affairs of developing countries. And in Dili, after almost 10 years of a UN presence, the Timorese have international advisor fatigue.

The fact that the review is going nowhere is not just an academic question, given its centrality to the UNMIT mandate, the millions of dollars contributed by donors, and the threat of another flare-up between the Timorese security forces. Completing a comprehensive review is also the first benchmark listed in the report to the Security Council to help it measure UNMIT’s progress and structure future missions.

As it looks forward to new mandates, objectives, and benchmarks, the Security Council might do well to look back to evaluate what the UN has done well in the last decade in Timor-Leste and where it been less successful. The UN’s policing and election support have contributed to stability and peace in Timor-Leste and can continue to do so.

But the time seems to have passed for the comprehensive security sector review, as it is lost in the micromanagement of advisory board meetings, sub-committees, and piecemeal projects. Or, to rephrase the words of the Secretary-General above, in Timor-Leste to date there appears to have been little commitment, leadership and capacity from either UNMIT or the government to fulfill this once important part of UN’s mandate.