Post-Conflict Leadership

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted unanimously by the United Nations General Assembly in September 2015, declares its ultimate goal as transforming the world. The declaration states rightly that "There can be no sustainable development without peace and no peace without sustainable development.” The fact that this goal was placed only 16th out of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) should not underestimate the importance of transforming conflict-prone countries into peaceful nations engaged in the pursuit of sustainable development.

Today, the United Nations supports over 16 peacekeeping and 11 special political and peacebuilding missions.1 Many of the countries that receive support from the United Nations are members of the g7+ group of 20 fragile States that are trying to overcome instability and move out of the conflict trap and poverty.2 Yet, many of these countries have leaders who hold on to power and wealth at the expense of national unity and welfare. My own engagement with leaders of conflict-prone countries revealed that post-conflict recovery and development depend on national leaders more than institutions with which the people may not be familiar.

To realize sustainable peace and stability in post-conflict countries, the United Nations has basically accepted and followed the political and moral philosophy developed by John Rawls in 1971.3 Liberal democracy and the rule of law, along with the protection of human rights, became pillars for governance. Constitutions have been written and state institutions of governance established to achieve fairness in society. There is no doubt that institutional capacity-building for democratic governance is desirable for sustaining peace and stability in the long run, but in the immediate aftermath of conflict there is a more urgent need to influence and transform national leaders so that they become committed to national unity and interest.

In this article, I identify specific leadership attributes that contribute to building peace in the aftermath of conflict and during the period of transition from post-conflict peacebuilding to sustainable development.

In the immediate aftermath of conflict, the critical task for national leaders is to balance the need for securing political stability, if necessary with force, with governing their countries by influencing the thought and behaviour of opponents, as well as their followers. It requires both resolute leadership and the willingness to share and accommodate divergent interests and aspirations. The surest way to establish a society based on the rule of law is for leaders to act virtuously, exercising discipline in their personal conduct and behaviour, rather than using power and force to strengthen their position.

During my United Nations assignments to several countries in the support of peace and development, I found the leaders of Timor-Leste exercising necessary leadership and succeeding in consolidating peace in the aftermath of armed conflict, first with the occupying Indonesian force and then with the internal power struggle. The Timorese leaders learned their lessons from the political security crises of 2006 and 2008 and achieved national unity and a peaceful transfer of power as they exercised what I call "primordial leadership", which has five attributes. 4

The first attribute is the leaders' commitment to national interest. identity and unity. In conflict-prone countries, personal rivalry and animosity are the main causes of armed conflict and struggle. It is imperative that national leaders exercise self-discipline and place national interests and unity above their personal agendas. The second attribute is their ability to integrate universal ideals and principles of governance into local community values and customs. Thirdly, their leadership is characterized by courage, compassion, and the ability to communicate and persuade their followers and the people at large of the efficacy of pursuing holistic visions and adapting universal ideals to local ethical norms. The fourth leadership attribute is the ability to balance the need to act on injustices and crimes committed in the past with the merit of pursuing the future. The final and most important attribute is the ability to transform the mindset and mentality of the people in order to achieve sustainable peace and development.

The underlying foundations for these five leadership attributes are the moral and ethical ideals that have been advocated for centuries in both the East and the West. In The Analects, Confucius emphasized the importance of morality in personal and governmental conduct.5 His teachings stressed the superiority of personal exemplification over explicit laws, and the attainment of prudent judgment rather than knowledge of laws. The concept of "yi" (義) refers to the state of being just and right or doing a just or right thing.6 This term contrasts with an act of self-interest. While pursuing one's own self-interest is not necessarily bad, a leader should enhance the greater good of a community. In the West, as explained by Plato in The Republic, a virtuous leader has similar attributes that are essential for the proper functioning of a state. The ideal state is possible only if it is ruled by virtuous leaders and trained functionaries. Plato eventually sided with the option of representative democracy and the rule of law as the second best form of government based on sovereign power residing in people.

In conflict-prone and post-conflict countries, it takes time before the rule of law and other institutional frameworks for democratic governance are fully developed. What is needed most is an active engagement of national and local leaders who can restore the dignity of local people by adhering to locally adapted universal norms and standards of governance behaviour. There is a need for finding and supporting such primordial leaders in post­ conflict countries, until the rule of law and other institutional mechanisms can be established and accepted fully by the people and society as a whole. This approach, I believe, is more effective than the inordinate concentration of effort made in building institutional structures and procedures, with little attention paid to the local values, traditions and customs. It would also enhance the ethical and professional attributes of the leaders and managers of local governance institutions, increasing their transparency and accountability. Post-conflict governance must have the qualities of disciplined leadership with high moral and ethical standards to restrain their desire to perpetuate their rule. The ultimate task for leaders of post-conflict countries is to prepare for a smooth transition of their authority to successors.

It is noteworthy that the Timorese leaders acted jointly to end the security crises of 2006 and 2008 by placing national interest above their own personal and group gains. When the personal rivalry caused armed conflict and struggle, the key leaders exercised self-discipline, persuading followers to maintain national unity and protect national interests at the expense of their group interests. In spite of external pressure to pursue the retributive justice and indictment of Indonesian military leaders, the Timorese leaders chose restorative justice and the path for reconciliation and friendship based upon the primacy of truth.7 When the country descended into chaos in 2006, they set aside their personal animosity and sought jointly United Nations support for the deployment of international stabilization forces to prevent the country from relapsing into civil war.

The Timorese leaders successfully integrated universal ideals and principles of governance into local norms and practices without hindering the stability of society. They discovered that it was essential to communicate and persuade their followers and people to change their mentality and mindset in order to achieve sustainable peace and development. To bring about the necessary change, the leaders demonstrated their commitment to the principle of democratic governance, particularly the right of people to choose their leaders through electoral processes. The leaders showed the self-discipline and courage to respect the outcome of elections, which proved not only free and fair, but credible.

While the Timorese leaders successfully achieved building peace and stability in their country, they faced a new challenge of transferring power to younger leaders and realizing sustainable development. It's a challenge of a different kind that required the transfer of power and responsibility of governance to younger leaders. It is significant that Xanana Gusmão, the independence leader who had led the country as President and Prime Minister, handed over the post of Prime Minister to a younger health technocrat, Rui Araujo, a member of the opposition party FRETILIN,8 in February 2015, two years before the completion of his tenure. The formation of a Government consisting of younger professional leaders, including those from the opposition political party, demonstrated Xanana Gusmão's self-discipline and commitment to a peaceful transfer of power.

The leaders of the post-conflict nation of Timor-Leste are now encountering yet another more daunting challenge of sustainable economic and social development. As the World Bank has recognized,9 Timor-Leste has achieved significant economic and social progress with the use of financial resources from the Petroleum Fund, which was established as early as 2005 to manage revenues from natural gas exploitation in a transparent and accountable manner. The accomplishments comprised economic growth to attain a lower middle-income status in 2011 and significant gains in education and health conditions, including the near-halving of infant and child mortality rates. However, the economic and social progress depended almost entirely upon the high global oil prices that prevailed until recently. Now that global oil prices are falling rapidly, it is imperative for the Timorese leaders to diversify the economy and create new employment opportunities, particularly for youth. Easily available financial resources from natural gas proceeds also allowed corruption to grow. This requires a government leadership that can not only increase human and institutional capacity and create employment opportunities in the non-petroleum sector, but also reduce KKN corruption practices,10 as the national parliament has adopted the SDGs.11

In conclusion, I find that the leaders of post-conflict countries face three major challenges: first, to build peaceful and stable societies that are just and inclusive; second, to build skilled manpower and capable institutions that are transparent, accountable and effective; and third, to achieve economic and social progress that provides the entire population with equal access to justice, education, health and employment. For this to happen, the mindset and mentality of both leaders and citizens of post-conflict countries must change. The United Nations must do more to help in this process.  


1 There are 16 United Nations peacekeeping missions and 11 special political and peacebuilding missions. See and Accessed 23 February 2016.

2 The g7+ is a voluntary association of countries that are or have been affected by conflict and are now in transition to the next stage of development. The group, currently comprised of 20 countries, promotes country-owned and country-led planning mechanisms and recommends major changes in the way international partners engage In conflict-affected environments. For further information, see Accessed 18 January 2016.

3 John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1999). This is a reissue of the first edition published in 1971.

4 Sukehiro Hasegawa, Primordial Leadership: Peacebuilding and National Ownership in Timor-Leste (Tokyo, New York, United Nations University Press, 2013), pp. 275 - 276.

5 The Analects (論語) is a collection of sayings and ideas attributed to the Chinese philosopher Confucius and his contemporaries, tradition­ ally believed to have been written by Confucius' followers.

6 Yi (義) or (正義) means literally "justice, righteousness; meaning", in Confucianism.

7 In 2001, the Timor-Leste Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR) was established by the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET). It was tasked with establishing the truth about human rights violations, and pursuing the process of reconciliation aimed at restoring the human dignity of victims. Hasegawa, p. 163.

8 FRETILIN is an acronym of the political party, the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor.

9 World Bank. ''Overview", 06 October 2015. Available from

10 KKN stands for Korupsi, Kolusi, and Nepotisme meaning Corruption, Collusion, and Nepotism.

11 It is noteworthy that the Timorese Parliament has acted already in this regard by adopting a resolution (Resoluçao do Parlamento Nacional No. 19/2015) on 18 November 2015 to pursue the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.