Rules of engagement (ROE): Timor-Leste

Rules of engagement (ROE): Timor-Leste


In international law, rules of engagement are “directives issued by competent military authority which specify the circumstances and limitations under which forces will initiate and/or continue combat engagement with other forces encountered.”

Debate over “rules of engagement” have occurred in Timor over the right of Australian and UN peacekeepers to use deadly force against armed assailants from militias or youth gangs, and whether armed force can be used in cases of threats to property as well as people. NGOs have also criticised the deployment of armed troops on daily duties, in a country long traumatised by armed violence.



Joint Press Conference with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Cooperation of East Timor, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, 12 February 2008, Darwin

“QUESTION: What are the rules of engagement?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well the rules of engagement are operational. I’m not proposing to respond to that.”


Troops frustrated by lack of policing powers, The Age, 29 May 2006

Defence Minister Brendan Nelson is calling on the East Timorese government to give Australian troops the policing powers needed to quell gang violence in Dili….The minister said Australian troops were frustrated by rules of engagement that allowed them to do little more than disarm the gangs terrorising Dili….

” ‘Our rules of engagement don’t extend to applying extreme force to people doing that sort of thing (gang violence),’ Dr Nelson said. ‘… It’s quite clear that what we need is strong East Timorese political leadership and a policing strategy which is developed by and supported by the East Timorese government and assisted in its implementation by the Australian Defence Force.’ “

Aust Govt signs rules of engagement with East Timor, “AM” program, ABC Radio, 26 May 2006

Last night Lieutenant General Ken Gillespie, the Vice Chief of Defence, supported by senior DFAT (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade) officials successfully settled those terms of engagement with President Gusmao, Prime Minister Alkatiri and also the President of the Parliament in East Timor, facilitated by Jose Ramos Horta.

“Defence Minister Brendan Nelson: Well, Tony, the last thing that an Australian soldier will ever do is fire his or her weapon in anger. In fact, what we will do is use graduated scales of force to see that people behave in a lawful and appropriate manner. But in the end, Tony, if the life of an Australian soldier is being threatened or fired upon, they will use an appropriate level of force to protect themselves, to protect Australians, foreign nationals and innocent East Timorese….

“In the end, Tony, if we do see people who are not responding to lawful requests from the Australian Defence Force personnel, we will use whatever level of force is required to see that they are disarmed and do not threaten the life and safety of innocent people. The other thing that’s important, Tony, is that where key infrastructure is being threatened, the Australian Defence Force will also use an appropriate level of force to protect it where that infrastructure is essential to the well-being and safety of others.”

United Nations

Timor-Leste – UN Security Council resolution 1867 (2009)

“Underscores the need for the concept of operations and rules of engagement to be regularly updated as necessary and to be fully in line with the provisions of this resolution, and requests the Secretary-General to report on them to the Security Council and troop and police contributing countries within 90 days after the adoption of this resolution.”

UN peacekeepers in E. Timor want rules of engagement changed, Asian Political News, 11 September 2000

U.N. peacekeepers in East Timor have requested a relaxation of the rules of engagement to allow them to deal more effectively with armed anti-independence militia groups, the top commander of the 7,800-strong force said Monday.

” ‘In the jungle, we are not too happy about having to shout first, and then we get fired at first. It’s just suicidal,” Lt. Gen. Boonsrang Niumpradit of Thailand told Kyodo News in an interview at U.N. military headquarters in Dili. ‘We need to be flexible, otherwise we will get our people killed,’ he said.”

…Nymo said the U.N. mandate already gives the peacekeepers the right to use deadly force. ”All it requires is an act of hostility, which means if someone is pointing his gun at you or raising his rifle in a threatening manner, you’re fully within your rules of engagement right to shoot to kill.”

Frequently Asked Questions – Role of United Nations Police (UNPol) in Timor-Leste, UNMIT website

Q. Will UNPol officers carry weapons?

Yes. Use of weapons is governed by international laws relating to the use of proportionate force and rules of engagement.

Commentary and analysis

La’o Hamutuk Submission, Australian Senate Inquiry into Human Rights Mechanisms and the Asia-Pacific, Parliament of Australia, November 2008.

“When foreign peacekeepers do not know the history of Timor-Leste, its culture and its language they cannot act effectively. They cannot be sensitive to people’s experience under the Indonesian military occupation. The ISF has not used the reservoir of knowledge and relationships the ADF developed in Timor-Leste during INTERFET. Carrying long arms at all times, on and off duty, even where there is a low security risk – such as speaking to small children, playing sport, shopping in a supermarket, eating at a restaurant or relaxing at the beach, is inappropriate and insensitive to a population traumatised by a brutal military occupation. It makes people feel unsafe.”

Legal aspects of Australia’s involvement in the International Force for East Timor, Michael J. Kelly, Timothy L. H. McCormack, Paul Muggleton, Bruce M. Oswald, International Review of the Red Cross No. 841, p. 101-139

“A number of national contingents deployed with INTERFET queried whether lethal force could be used to defend mission-essential property. In recent years State practice, as evidenced for example by the Rules of Engagement (ROE) for UN-mandated missions, indicates widespread acceptance of a right to use force, including lethal force, for the defence of property designated as having special status. A key distinction is drawn between the defence of mission-essential property as an expression of national self-defence governed by international law, and the right of individual soldiers to defend themselves pursuant to their own municipal law. The ADF Legal Office, with advice from the Australian Attorney-General’s Department, concluded that customary international law acknowledges a right to defend mission-essential property when the destruction of such property would seriously compromise the security of the deployed force….

“INTERFET’s ROE explicitly provided for the use of force (up to and including lethal force) for the defence of mission-essential property. Initially the property identified as mission-essential was extremely broad and included, for example, all INTERFET vehicles. However, the range of property explicitly identified within the definition was eventually narrowed.”

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 Updated: 21 June 2009