DILI - The UN mission in East Timor needs to hand over formal control of the country's national police force as soon as possible to avoid doing irreparable damage, according to an influential think-tank.
The slow handover of policing responsibilities, which began in May on a district-by-district basis, is encouraging local police to set up parallel security structures, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a report last week.
The UN Security Council must "recognise the limited capacity of UN police to play an ongoing development role with their Timorese counterparts" and order the full handover of policing responsibilities immediately, it added.
"The problem is that the Timorese police are running a parallel operation," said Jim Della-Giacoma, ICG Southeast Asia
"It's a fiction that the UN is in charge of the police and maintaining this facade is not healthy if the UN is supposed to be supporting rule of law in this country.
"If the Timorese police are to improve they need to be learning by doing, but they also need to be taking responsibility for their own actions."
He added: "There is a role for the UN police in country, it's just not in front -- it's supporting from behind".
Della-Giacoma cited the recent release of Indonesian former militia commander Maternus Bere as a prime example of the lack of control the UN has over the Timorese police force.
Indicted by the UN's Serious Crimes Unit for his role in a string of human rights violations in East Timor, Bere was arrested on August 8 while visiting family in East Timor only to be released into the care of the Indonesian embassy on August 30 at the order of Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao.
Bere was taken back to Indonesia on October 30 despite a wave of international condemnation, including from the UN.
"When it came time to send him back to Indonesia, the Timorese police escorted him to the border without the knowledge or consent of the UN mission," Della-Giacoma said.
"They followed the prime minister's orders, they followed Timorese general commander's orders, they did not follow, and they do not follow, the UN police commissioner's orders."
As the UN prepares to welcome Ameerah Haq as the new chief of mission in East Timor, replacing Atul Khare, Della-Giacoma said it was time for the UN to clarify its position.
"Together with the Timorese government they need to hammer out an agreement that is very limited and specific and has a clear role for the UN mission and its police contingent in supporting the Timorese police in the coming years."
Hak is expected to arrive in East Timor in early January in time to be involved in a technical assessment of the UN mission, which should have a bearing on the future of the UN's presence in the fledgling nation.
While Haq's arrival is not expected to usher in a period of great change, observers are hopeful of at least some positive impact when she takes up the UN's most important post in East Timor.
"The new UN chief should heed Crisis Group's recommendations relating to a speedy handover of executive policing responsibility to the government," said Edward Rees, senior advisor to development group Peace Dividend Trust.
He said the UN would be better off putting money into building up the domestic economy, rather than mentoring a police force that it no longer controlled.
"More local spending means more wealth and more jobs," he said.
"Jobs mean security and as a result (the UN) could use what time it has left to promote job creation through its spending," and thus help to ensure that UN police do not have to come back to East Timor in the future.