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PRESIDENT RAMOS HORTA  by Alfred de Zayas, OHCHR, retired

Heads of State know Geneva well. They deliver prepared statements at the Human Rights Council, pay the requisite lip service to norms and principles, collect applause from routined audiences. No surprises. Yet occasionally there is a fresh wind of intellectual honesty blowing through the Palais des Nations, a breeze of independent thinking and wisdom. That was the case on 11 March when the President of Timor Leste, the 191st nation to gain admission to the United Nations (2002), spoke before the delegates in the Alliance of Civilizations Room, in measured language, marked by a sense of history and a decidedly low-key approach.

The Leitmotiv of his speech was the human right to peace, a subject matter that is only now being discovered in the Council, especially following Resolution 11/4 of June 2009 and the workshop held in December 2009 at the Palais, with the participation of international experts including ICJ Judge Antonio Cançado Trindade (Brazil).  Horta reminded us that: “Without conditions of real peace, no one can enjoy the most basic political and civil rights or economic, social and cultural rights. Without real peace, we cannot fully implement the rights enshrined in our Constitution and International Conventions concerning child and Women’s Rights. Without real peace, we cannot progress on economic rights, rights to employment and housing, rights to adequate education and health and the right to food.”  Peace is thus not just the absence of war, but all those individual and collective rights that constitute positive peace.  

José Manuel Ramos Horta was born in Dili, East Timor, when it was still a Portuguese colony. Barely after decolonization in 1975, East Timor was invaded by Indonesia, thus beginning a long struggle for self-determination. Ramos became the Permanent Representative to the United Nations for the East Timorese independence movement, and thanks to a Ghandi-inspired policy of civil disobedience and perseverance, the Timorese gained independence in 1999. A United Nations brokered peace led to the UN Transitional Administration led by the late Sergio Vieira de Mello, who became a close friend of Ramos Horta.  In recognition of Horta’s peaceful efforts for self-determination, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1996.    

At the Council Horta surprised some by his candour and unwillingness to kowtow to Zeitgeist conceptions:  “On the justice sector, we have been unfairly criticized by some fringe elements in this amorphous international community, an ‘international community’ that is invoked time and again whenever some people want to bestow on themselves a measure of world authority in regurgitating ready-made clichés or academic jargon on justice.”  He argued convincingly for truth and reconciliation commissions, advocating an overtly Christian approach on the issue of forgiveness as the only true basis for rebuilding a post-conflict society. He criticized the cult of punishment and the panacea of current campaigns against impunity.  In the real world, the obsession with absolute justice often results in injustice, and, worse, in permanent tension:  “While the notion of blind pursuit of justice might sound heroic and politically correct, the blind pursuit of justice without regard to the complex and often fragile balance in conflict societies may ignite new tensions and conflicts and derail the entire peace process.”
Already in 2006 the Geneva School of Diplomacy recognized the intellectual honesty and courage of this extraordinary leader and conferred upon him an honorary doctorate.  On 12 March 2010 Horta spoke to the assembled GSD faculty and students at the Pavillion Gallatin on the GSD campus:  “During the cold war many countries like us were footnotes and casualties of the greater battle between the USA and the Soviet Union….I remember the very first move by a well-intentioned member of the USA Congress to condemn the Indonesian invasion in 1975. Today he’s a Senator, Tom Harkin from Iowa. He tabled a resolution in the USA Congress and obtained 40 votes out from 400 votes. This is because people had no idea where in the map was Timor-Leste.”

Horta reminisced about his early days in the UN, lobbying on behalf of his people and achieving what was unthinkable in 1975 – a unanimous Security Council resolution on Timor, deploring the invasion and requesting withdrawal without delay. He remembers fondly the help he received from the Ambassador of Tanzania Salim Ahmed Salim, who later became Secretary-General of the African Union.  After 24 years of struggle, the referendum of 1999 resulted in an overwhelming majority for independence. The challenge became how to build a nation. “Our first priority was to be sustainable as a state entity, having stability, peace inside the country, a good administration and a functioning economy.” The UN was to orchestrate Timor’s transition to statehood.  “Now, how long do you think a little Chinese take-away business would need to become sustainable and even profitable? This is what I asked the experts at that time…they answered me that normally you need 3 to 5 years. A friend of mine in NY told me that we needed 5 to 7 years in order to be profitable, but nation building is easier! They told me that I needed 2 years to build all the institutions…” (laughter) Of course, it was unthinkable to have a stable entity after two years. Timor had very little resources and the budget was scarcely 60 million dollars. There were serious difficulties in the beginning, but then there were oil deals with Australia. At some point Timor started to have some revenue from oil and gas and fortunately the budget started going up. Today Timor has a budget of 600 million dollars. As to micro-economy, the young government had to calculate how much money would be needed to prime the pump and what would be the minimum necessary to eliminate extreme poverty. The government started very prudently, first with a subsidy of 20 dollars then 30 dollars by month for everyone over the age 60 years. With that they were able to buy some vegetables and food from the neighbourhood. And whenever it became known that there was some money in a neighbourhood, producers started producing more and gradually money got into circulation.

With regard to the task of normalizing relations with Timor-Leste’s neighbours, including Indonesia, there was the burden of a huge devastation of the country and the memory of thousands of casualties. “What should we have done following independence? Be angry? Look for revenge?” Ramos had to choose between the reconciliation experience of South Africa or consider the option of international prosecutorial justice for everyone involved in violence in the past.  The Timorese deliberately decided against international tribunals. “We adopted a modified version of the South African model…in the end we chose a mechanism that would allow the truth to come out. The relation with Indonesia today is exemplary, government to government and people to people. Now, our border is completely safe and we have many  Timorese studying in Indonesia and hundreds of Indonesians living safety in Timor…We honour our people who died in the struggle for independence, but I also pay tribute to those Indonesian soldiers who died in our country. I think that if you go to a mother of an Indonesian soldier and say to her - sorry about your son, too bad, but he was fighting an unjust war -- I think for a bereaved mother a lost of a son is a lost son and she will never be interested in the circumstances in which he died. So, let us pay tribute to the mothers of Indonesian whose sons died in Timor.”

Ultimately, what the world needs is peace and an end to the waste of resources. There is enough for everybody, but States should not squander their riches in the arms industry and in the arms trade.  “Peace is the single most important human right that the State and national leaders must strive to provide to everyone; we must build a country, a society where the culture of non-violence and of peace, of non-discrimination and inclusion, has gained roots.” 

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