Protection and early recovery in Timor-Leste
by Louisa Medhurst March 2010

The South-East Asian nation of Timor-Leste declared independence on 20 May 2002 after three years of UN administration following the end of the Indonesian occupation in 1999. Four years later, in 2006, serious civil conflict broke out when sections of the Timorese army (known as ‘Petitioners’) protested against alleged discrimination by officers from areas of eastern Timor-Leste. Subsequent clashes, which also included the police and wider society, resulted in the displacement of approximately 150,000 people. The Cluster System was officially introduced in Timor-Leste in March 2009 to better coordinate the response to the conflict and also to plan for potential future emergencies, particularly natural disasters. Although the international community had responded rapidly to the crisis, by the time the clusters were introduced and terms of reference and work plans finalised almost all displacement camps had closed; by the end of November 2009, only transitional shelters remained.[1]

The Cluster System was introduced during the latter stages of early recovery, when the transition from humanitarian response to development action was very much under way. Most displaced people had either returned home or settled elsewhere with government support (known as ‘recovery packages’), and donors had begun to work with the government on national development priorities. The experience of the protection cluster in Timor-Leste highlights the challenges of introducing the Cluster System at a time when the transition from emergency relief to development programming had already begun. The introduction of the Cluster System presented three key difficulties. First, remaining humanitarian actors and development partners were beginning to talk in terms of ‘recovery’ or even ‘development’, and it was difficult to get actors to engage with what is essentially a humanitarian coordination mechanism. Second, the focus of the Cluster System – recovery from the 2006 crisis and future contingency planning – meant that it was difficult for cluster members to engage with protection concerns that did not necessarily stem from that time. There was thus a lack of support for discussions around broader human rights issues. Third, despite the wealth of international work on the subject, there was little understanding on the ground of how to integrate protection into early recovery and development programming.

Protection in early recovery and the transitional phase

At the global level, extensive work has been undertaken to understand the relationship between protection and early recovery. In the Guidance Note on Early Recovery issued by the Global Cluster in April 2008, for example, cash grants, emergency social protection schemes and training peacekeepers in protection are highlighted as protection activities that could potentially be components of an early recovery strategy. As well as existing as clusters independently, the emphasis has been on mainstreaming both protection and early recovery into the work of the other clusters.[2]

From a protection perspective, the minimum protection standards work of the NGO Inter-Agency Protection Project and the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross on Professional Protection Standards are considerable steps forward at the global level to inform cross-sectoral protection programming. More needs to be done, however, to translate global policy achievements into work on the ground. Timor-Leste is no exception.

What happened on the ground?

By the time the Cluster System was introduced, the immediate humanitarian crisis in Timor-Leste was over. Nevertheless, following direction from the Humanitarian Coordinator and led by the Humanitarian Coordination Unit in the UN Integrated Mission (UNMIT), agencies began to take on leadership and co-leadership roles. Following the deployment of a senior Pro-Cap secondee, the Human Rights Unit of UNMIT agreed to take on the leadership of the protection cluster, with the Norwegian Refugee Council as co-lead. At this time, four government-led protection-related groups were already in place, on Gender-Based Violence, Child Protection, Counter-Trafficking and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In addition, local NGOs met regularly on issues relating to land and housing rights, led by the Haburas Foundation and La’o Hamutuk.

Following direction from the Humanitarian Coordination Unit of UNMIT and the UNDP Early Recovery Advisor (deployed in May 2009), the protection cluster co-chairs began to work on Terms of Reference for the cluster and to look at membership. It was clear from the start that the government would not be attending protection cluster meetings. By the time the clusters were introduced, the focus of engagement with the international community had shifted to the government-led donor coordination mechanism, the National Priorities Working Groups. There was a real sense, both from the government and agencies on the ground, that to talk in humanitarian terms was becoming increasingly redundant. There was also little participation from national NGOs, although the national human rights ombudsman, the Provedoria, had begun to engage by October 2009 through the efforts of the co-chairs, and by virtue of the fact that cluster meetings were held in Provedoria’s offices.

Despite the absence of national NGO and government engagement, the protection cluster pushed ahead with producing a workplan identifying protection concerns and highlighting any gaps in protection-related programming. Protection focal points were appointed in other clusters to mainstream protection in their work. Additionally, all of the clusters worked on developing contingency plans for future emergencies. This was another example of duplication, since the government, supported by international organisations including UNDP and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), was also working on contingency planning at this time. From a protection cluster perspective, it would have been better to concentrate on supporting the government’s own contingency planning by making sure that its plans were protection-sensitive, rather than producing a separate contingency plan for the protection cluster, especially since the situation was not an emergency.

Following several meetings and further analysis it became evident that the major protection concerns identified by the cluster were either being discussed in existing coordination mechanisms or individual organisations had plans to address the issues independently, and often in coordination with the government. Many of these concerns, such as the issue of impunity, did not relate just to the 2006 crisis, but were broader protection issues that had their origins in many years of conflict during the Indonesian occupation, complex land and property rights being just one example. Because the clusters were initiated to respond to the 2006 crisis and were narrowly defined as working on recovery from that crisis (and contingency planning), participants seemed to be less willing to discuss these bigger issues in the cluster environment. Certainly, the situation was past ‘early recovery’, but protection issues remained. However, the utility of discussing such issues in the cluster, rather than in the national-led meetings or donor coordination working groups, was questionable.

One area where the protection cluster could have potentially added value was in the return of IDPs displaced by the 2006 crisis. A recent report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre notes that ‘The few incidents of re-displacement, and the resettlement of many displaced households to new areas, indicate the continued opposition of some communities to accept returns and highlight the fact that the root causes of the 2006 crisis and subsequent displacement have not yet been effectively addressed’.[3] The government’s rapid closure of IDP camps and transitional shelters, which began at the end of 2007, clearly presents a multitude of protection concerns. However, prior to and at the beginning of the camp closure process the Cluster System was not in place. Coordination focused on the logistics of movement out of camps, rather than substantive discussions about return. As transitional shelters began to close, the protection cluster called an ad hoc meeting in July 2009[4] to raise concerns associated with the camp closures. The government did not attend and, while partner organisations recognised the need to address protection concerns, this did not translate into recovery planning in communities of return that specifically took into account the needs of IDPs.

Late as they were, the efforts of the early recovery advisor did lead to discussions on the cash grant given by the government to returned IDPs, and how it might be used to support durable solutions for former IDPs. However, this was not facilitated through the Cluster System, but through an independent group of key international actors formed towards the end of 2009. Nevertheless, the planned research in this area can be seen as a positive step forward in linking protection and early recovery on the ground.

Conclusion: the way forward?

Timor-Leste is clearly far along the road from a humanitarian to a development context, and the Cluster System was brought in too late to have any substantive impact on the ground. There is a need for better understanding of protection issues among development actors in transitional contexts. It has been noted that the protection debate was often seen as IDP- and particularly humanitarian-related, and some actors seemed to feel that, with the closure of the camps, the government would not be open to discussion of humanitarian concerns. Nonetheless, and regardless of the existence or non-existence of the protection cluster, analysis of protection issues in Timor-Leste is not necessarily as politically sensitive as international organisations may believe.

More work, both internationally and on the ground, is needed to understand what role, if any, the protection cluster can play in early recovery and development contexts like Timor-Leste. The Cluster System was flawed, especially given the fact that there was little room for debate in the cluster context around broader human rights issues. Actors should have considered much earlier how to engage with national human rights bodies (including the government) and the development coordination mechanism (National Priorities). Actors in the protection cluster in Timor-Leste would have been better placed supporting existing Timorese-led human rights coordination mechanisms.

The protection cluster ultimately did not work well for a number of reasons, including poor timing and lack of focus, inadequate support from international actors and poor engagement with Timorese bodies. In terms of future recommendations, the cluster certainly needs to support government-led contingency planning and it is not too late for members to provide input to national development plans, but there is little real value in the cluster as a body meeting regularly. Remaining recovery issues, especially around durable solutions for previously displaced persons, do need coordination, but UNDP should lead this process, making sure that protection is mainstreamed throughout discussions, rather than existing as a separate cluster.

Louisa Medhurst is the former Protection and Advocacy Advisor for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Timor-Leste. She can be reached at

[1] For additional information on displacement and conflict in Timor-Leste, see IDMC’s Timor-Leste Overview ‘IDPs have returned home but the challenge of reintegration is just beginning’, 9 December 2009, available at

[2] See protection and early recovery cluster documentation at

[3] See IDMC, ‘IDPs have returned home’.

[4] For the website on the protection cluster in Timor-Leste, see