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Brussels, November 2007

Character and goals: UN missions in El Salvador and East Timor

ONUSAL mission in El Salvador and UNAMET mission in East Timor.

Keywords: El Salvador |

UN Observer missions are generally small (at maximum, a few hundred), staffed predominantly by military personnel. They obey the same principles and rules regarding final approval of their constitution as for the conflict parties, including equitable geographic representation, and carrying arms only for self-defence (see fiche 13) according to classical peacekeeping missions. (1) But a few observation missions have been staffed differently and with different tasks, which will be considered in this chapter:

ONUSAL : one of the first UN missions deployed prior to a cease-fire agreement

ONUSAL in El Salvador (1991-1995) (2) was set up at a time when cease-fire negotiations between the Salvadorian government and the guerrilla army, FMLN, which were intended to end a civil war of more than 10 years’ duration, were well under way but were not yet concluded (3). Thus, ONUSAL was one of the first UN missions deployed prior to a cease-fire agreement. ONUSAL’s mandate since its deployment in June 1991 has changed several times. At first, it was to verify compliance by the parties with the July 1990 Agreement on Human Rights. At this point its mandate included monitoring of the human rights situation, investigating alleged human rights violations, promoting human rights, and making recommendations on eliminating violations. It had power to visit any place without notice, could receive communications from anyone, conduct direct investigations, and even use the media for the fulfilment of its mission.

After the signing of the Peace Accords in January 1992, ONUSAL had additionally to verify and monitor the agreement. After the demobilisation of the FMLN, the mandate was again enlarged to monitor the elections planned for 1994. ONUSAL was to verify that the provisions made by all electoral authorities were impartial and consistent with the holding of free and fair elections; that registration of voters would be inclusive; that effective mechanisms were established to prevent duplicate voting; that voters had unrestricted freedom of assembly, expression of movement and organisation; and that voters were educated so that they could effectively participate.

ONUSAL was originally comprised of 135 international staff but was later increased to 450, a number to which 900 election observers were added in 1993. In the course of enlargement of its mandate, ONUSAL had three divisions added to the original Human Rights Division:

  • a Police Division with an authorised strength of 631 (a number it never reached), to assist in the formation of the National Civil Police;

  • a Military Division consisting of 380 military liaison officers and observers;

  • an Electoral Division of 36 professionals, established in September 1993.

The observation mission : UNAMET

The longer-term conflict in East Timor, where the majority of the population sought independence from Indonesia (4) seemed to come to an end when, at the beginning of 1999, the President of Indonesia, Habibie, indicated that his government might be prepared to consider independence for East Timor (5). Negotiations were taken up which included the former colonial power, Portugal, and ended in April 1999 with an agreement between the United Nations, Indonesia and Portugal to allow a referendum, (called “consultation“) in East Timor on the question of the future status of the island (6). In the May 5 Agreements, the parties agreed to the security arrangements for the implementation of the consultation. Indonesia guaranteed that it would take care of law and order, and the protection of all civilians. This meant that the issue of security was left in the hands of the Indonesian police, although it was clear that their neutrality was anything but a given. At the beginning of June the Security Council established the observation mission, UNAMET, to cover the time period until the consultation slated for August 30, which was later extended until end of September. UNAMET consisted of 280 civilian police officers to advise the Indonesian Police, as well as 50 military liaison officers to maintain contact with the Indonesian Armed Forces. As well, a larger number of additional personnel from other UN organisations (e.g. UNHCR), including 460 UN Volunteers (50 of them as polling supervisors), and more then 1,700 other observers were present before the referendum day (7). Supporters and opponents of the autonomy proposal signed a Code of Conduct for the campaigning period (8). But in the last two weeks before the referendum violence escalated again after a period of relative quiet; militias tried to intimidate local people, and UNAMET staff were threatened again.

While voting on the referendum day took place with only a few incidents (one of them the fatal stabbing of a local UN staff member), on the night after the referendum, August 30, violence resumed, mainly on the part of pro-Indonesian militia that had not withdrawn from East Timor as had been stipulated in the Agreement. They attacked pro-independence supporters, burning homes and attacking residents of villages. The observers were unable to stop the violence, and all remonstration with Indonesia to provide adequate security failed. Only in the capital, Dili, a small group of 92 international staff with 163 local staff, 23 journalists, nine international observers and two UN medical volunteers remained in the UNAMET headquarters, in order to provide some protection to about 2,000 displaced East Timorese who had sought refuge in the compound. In the end the compound was not stormed by the rioting militias and, after two weeks, the beleaguered occupants eventually evacuated to Australia. On September 15, one day later, the UN Security Council decided to deploy an armed Chapter VII-peacekeeping mission (9), the Transitional Administration of East Timor (UNTAET), which took place within a few days without meeting much armed resistance. This is the present state of affairs in East Timor.


  • (1) : Until 1996 there have been about 20 such missions. Their main objective is to report on conditions vis-à-vis the political agreement that the observers have come to monitor - usually either the withdrawal of forces, a cease-fire, borders or demilitarisation zones. See Hillen 1998:33 or Woodhouse/Ramsbotham 1999.

  • (2) : Sources: Stuart 1994, White 1994, Woodhouse/Ramsbotham 1999.

  • (3) : The FMLN was founded in 1980, but there had been violence from right wing as well as left wing groups before that date. By 1992 more then 80,000 people had died, 550,000 displaced and 500,000 had fled the country. (Stuart 1994:60)

  • (4) : A small rebel group had taken up arms in this cause, and pro-Indonesian militia fought against them.

  • (5) : Sources: Helwig 2000; “Monitoring and Verification of Peace Agreements (2000); “The United Nations and East Timor: A Chronology” (official UN report), (

  • (6) : The choices in the consultation were autonomy or independence.

  • (7) : 1,600 international and local observers were officially accredited. There were also 50 Indonesian and 50 Portuguese official observers to monitor the vote. (UN chronology, see above)

  • (8) : There was also a Code of Conduct governing the activities of international and local observers once the referendum was concluded, and the observers officially registered.

  • (9) : Resolution 1256 (1999).