The recall of retired PNTL officers undermines integrity of the security sector

The recall of retired PNTL officers undermines integrity of the security sector post thumbnail image

Photo : Fundasaun Mahein

In June 2023, just before the previous Government completed its mandate, the PNTL General Command sent 158 PNTL officers into retirement. This decision was based on PNTL’s Personnel Statute, which was promulgated by the President of the Republic in 2022. The Statute (specifically Article 128) requires that PNTL officers retire when they reach the age of sixty, and thus the decision of the PNTL Command to order these officers into retirement was done in accordance with the law. Soon after taking office, the IX Government announced its decision to reemploy the 158 PNTL retirees. In response, PNTL’s second-in-command Pedro Belo stated that the Government should revise the Statute before “reactivating” the retired officers, as the decision was not in line with the current law.

Fundasaun Mahein (FM) is also extremely concerned about this decision, not only because it directly violates the existing law, but because it appears to be yet another case of political intervention in the organisation of the state security institutions. As FM has written many times, we view such political interference as a threat to Timor-Leste’s national security, as it undermines the existing hierarchy and decision making processes, while contributing to patronage and corruption within the state security forces. This short article explores some of the potential implications of the Government’s decision, and offers advice on how to avoid politicisation of the security sector.

The PNTL Personnel Statute of 2022 set the retirement age at 60 years of age, thereby bringing PNTL into accord with other state institutions, including F-FDTL. FM supported the previous Government’s decision to send the 158 PNTL officers into retirement, for several reasons. First, it would enable younger officers to move up the institutional hierarchy. Second, new positions would become available in PNTL, thus creating more employment opportunities. Finally, it suggests that employment decisions – including the termination of employment – are being made according to written rules, thereby becoming more meritocratic and less subject to political interventions.

The first section of the IX Government Program focuses on “Reaffirming the Democratic Rule of Law”. FM strongly supports all government policies which strengthen the rule of law in Timor-Leste, and are pleased that the new government has made this a priority. For the same reason, we are puzzled about the IX Government’s decision to reactivate retired PNTL officers, as this is in direct violation of the law as laid out in the PNTL Personnel Statute.

Given the IX Government Program’s expressed need to “correct the irregularities committed” between 2017-2023, FM suspects that this decision may have been influenced by current policy makers’ desire to appear to be “against” any and all policies of the previous government. At the same time, there are signs that questions concerning political loyalties within PNTL have played a role in the Government’s decision. We are thus concerned that the trend of politicians intervening in the functioning of state institutions to satisfy party interests – and their own egos – is set to continue under the new government.

FM has written many times about the danger of politicisation of the security sector and of the public administration more broadly. FM believes that the decision to reactivate the 158 officers points to the further politicisation of PNTL by which government arbitrarily makes employment decisions. When the government favours particular individuals or groups irrespective of the law, the result is to secure their political support and patronage. Patronage ensures that both democracy and the rule of law are systematically eroded.

But the risk runs even deeper than this. Political patronage is a precursor of corruption. To explain, political patronage occurs when politicians use their influence to bestow benefits on individuals or groups who, in return, remain loyal to their political benefactors; the lifeblood of patronage is the provision of employment and contracts through the ‘politicisation’ of the public service. Patronage reinforces corruption because it creates the confluence of interests, loyalties and political culture in which corruption thrives.

Moreover, by disrupting PNTL’s internal processes, political interference may produce unintended consequences that threaten the institution’s integrity and disrupt the security sector as a whole. For example, the retirement of older officers enabled the promotion of younger officers to positions of higher responsibility. Career advancement and progressive responsibility for police officers is an essential component of institutional development, and FM strongly supports decisions which facilitate this. Now that these positions have been filled by younger officers, it is unclear how the previously retired officers will be reintegrated. Will they return to their previous positions, or will they occupy a lower rank than before? If the former, will younger officers who were promoted now be demoted? What impact will this have on their morale and relationship with the reactivated officers? If the latter, will these officers accept this? Will older, more experienced officers be comfortable taking orders from younger officers who now occupy higher ranks than them? Another issue is that bringing back retired PNTL officers sets a bad precedent for other institutions. F-FDTL’s commanders have also implemented the mandatory retirement of its members at age 60, as the law requires. Now that the Government has decided to reactivate retired PNTL officers, will retired F-FDTL members demand the same?

Fundamentally, FM sees that the decision of PNTL’s General Command to send 158 officers into retirement was made in accordance with the Personnel Statute, which itself was the product of thorough assessment and consultations with all relevant stakeholders. By contrast, the new Government’s decision to reactivate the officers lacks any clear rationale or consultation. The decision is also clearly in violation of the existing law, while also creating numerous potential risks for PNTL’s functioning and integrity and setting a bad precedent for other state institutions. At the same time, there are indications that the decision has been motivated by partisan interests, which is a worrying sign of the continued politicisation of the security sector.

The IX Government Program contains a large section on Good Governance and Fighting Corruption – an essential component of this is ensuring that state institutions operate under the rule of law, and are not governed by arbitrary decisions aimed at furthering political and personal agendas. The Program also discusses at length the need for PNTL and other domestic security services to uphold the democratic rule of law and remain independent from party interests. FM reminds policy makers and the Timorese public that patronage is a mechanism that operates silently but powerfully to politicize public institutions and, in the process, open the door to corruption. When patronage is evident in the security services, we have even more reason to be alarmed, because it enables politicians to act outside the law and do so with impunity. FM therefore urges the government to reconsider its decision, and, in general, to render all public institutions subject to the same rules regarding employment and retirement.

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