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José Ramos-Horta on the Complexities of Nation-Building in East Timor

Jose Ramos Horta (

Jose Ramos Horta ("Migufu"/Flickr)

A letter from Bangkok, written to the International Herald Tribune where the editorial was reprinted, accused you of having forgotten "that it was the removal of Suharto from power through mass protests in Indonesia that paved the way for East Timorese independence. If Suharto were still ruling then Ramos-Horta would have been most likely taking part in anti-US demonstrations and not trying to curry favor with the United States." How would your respond to this claim?

Well, it is just sad that every time someone does not agree with the left-wing presumption of what is politically correct, that individual or individuals are necessarily trying to curry favors with the US. I do not need to elaborate further. What I have prided myself on all my life is that I have never allowed myself to fall into ideological straight-jackets. I never make sweeping judgements about one side or the other. That's why in the midst of our own struggle, I always argued again and again for a peaceful resolution of the conflict with Indonesia. It was Indonesia that never responded to our proposals. So today we have the best possible relationship with Indonesia, because we never made sweeping judgements about Indonesia; we were fighting a particular military regime that was occupying East Timor, and not the Indonesian people.

But having shifted from a movement of national liberation to being in government must have entailed adopting a kind of pragmatism in dealing with all sorts of issues. So although you wouldn't necessarily compromise on moral questions or questions of justice you may be slightly constrained in your ability to say what you think is right.

Well, first of all, the constraints on us to express what we think are not necessarily only when we are in government. Even in our private lives we should think twice when we want to say something. Second, my criticism of the international community over its failures in the past to intervene -- to save the Cambodian people, or to save the Ugandan people under Idi Amin, I could cite numerous other instances where the international community failed, including in East Timor for the previous 24 years -- well, that criticism has also been directed at the United States. When the Security Council failed to act on Cambodia, maybe China can be blamed, because China would have vetoed any resolution on Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge era, but back then the United States was actually, if not actively, then passively, on the side of the Khmer Rouge. For the US -- and for that matter for the Asian countries -- at the time the bigger problem was the Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia. So my criticism was directed at United States policies in the past.

You have said elsewhere that the United Nations has a "deficit of credibility". Since you are one of the contenders for the position of UN Secretary-General, what kinds of reforms would you undertake were you to be appointed to the post?

Well, madam, let me clarify one thing: I am not a candidate, and not a contender. The fact that my name has been dropped and mentioned flatters me, but at least for the time being, I am not a candidate. Nevertheless, I, like any reasonably intelligent individual walking in the street, have an opinion about the UN. I think the UN is a great organization, an indispensable organization, but it has had numerous problems, not only in terms of the workings of the Security Council, but also the General Assembly. Equally serious -- and the Americans are right in criticizing the flaws in the administration and management of the UN -- are the issues with the Secretariat. If we do not clean up the flaws, the weaknesses in the United Nations' administration and management, well, you can have all the structural reforms in the Security Council, General Assembly and other bodies of the UN, but if you don't have a solid, sound, healthy system, and that is the Secretariat, well, it will always be handicapped.

I would not say it is an easy task to reform a body such as the UN Secretariat that is not money-making; it is not a commercial enterprise. It is a political body, and hence the Secretary-General, in trying to introduce internal reforms, in administration, finances, management, and personnel, cannot look at the UN as if he is managing a bank or a major corporation. He has to try to reconcile various principles, one of which is that the UN is a multilateral organization, not with one boss, not with one donor, but with many, many of both. Then he has to look at how, bearing this in mind, he can make the UN, the Secretariat, more professional, more effective, and less wasteful by eliminating what is non-productive -- and not necessarily to save money, but maybe to reallocate the monies from wasteful bodies to others that are performing better; namely to direct the money to the agencies that are doing good work on the ground, like the UNHCR, UNICEF and UNDP, rather than wasting money in New York or in Geneva.