With just over 100 days remaining before East Timor's independence, the Security Council today held a day-long meeting to review preparations in the territory for nationhood, including work on a constitution and plans for a successor mission to the current United Nations Transitional Administration (UNTAET).
"On 20 May - Independence Day - East Timor's dogged and inspiring quest for self determination will have been completed," said UNTAET chief Sergio Vieira de Mello, who spoke at the outset of an open meeting of the Council. During the meeting, which was chaired by Anil Kumarsingh Gayan, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Regional Cooperation of Mauritius, representatives from more than 20 countries took the floor to express their nations' support for East Timor and to commend the work of Mr. Vieira de Mello and UNTAET.
Mr. Vieira de Mello told the Council that East Timor's Constituent Assembly had reviewed and approved most of the draft constitution, with the full text slated to be adopted on 9 March. As for the transfer of power from the UN to the East Timorese people, there was one final institutional development that needed to be completed - the election of the President on 14 April.
As for the successor mission, Mr. Vieira de Mello said that above all, it would be guided by the principle of ensuring that operational responsibility was fully devolved to the East Timorese authorities as soon as possible without jeopardizing stability and progress.
Noting Secretary-General Kofi Annan's recommendation to extend UNTAET's mandate until 20 May, Mr. Vieira de Mello said that he was committed to ensuring a "wind-down" of the mission to minimize trauma, but the downsizing process had been particularly difficult, as the Government bodies were in dire need of international staff everywhere. The East Timorese Government would also require international support for social and economic development and poverty reduction, he said.
Addressing the Council in the ensuing debate, Prime Minister John Howard of Australia said his country and other donors were committed to East Timor's long-term sustainable development but pointed out that the territory would need more than the help and goodwill of its nearest neighbours. A seamless transition from UN administration to a functioning post-independence government was vital to long-term success, he said, stressing that the international community should not undo good work already done by skimping on resources. It was critical that the UN leave East Timor well-equipped to tackle the challenges of independence, he stressed. That was the best guarantee of minimizing the country's longer-term reliance on international support.
In his statement, José Ramos-Horta, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation for East Timor, said the process of designing a blueprint for economic development in the territory had been a unique experiment. It was one of the few exercises in planning and development where civil society provided an input to a governmental process before the plan was approved and put into effect. East Timor, he added, expected to accede to several human right treaties at independence, and the constitution was being drafted accordingly. The territory also would like to join the UN, either on the day of independence or soon after.