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

Jose Ramos Horta (

José Ramos-Horta, the Foreign Minister of East Timor, was a leading figure in the country's liberation movement. Mr Ramos-Horta lived in exile for the duration of the Indonesian occupation, during which time he also served as the Permanent Representative to the UN of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin).

In 1996, Mr Ramos-Horta was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with his compatriot, Bishop Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo. In granting the prize, the Nobel Committee highlighted their 'sustained efforts to hinder the oppression of a small people', hoping that 'this award will spur efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict of East Timor based on the people's right to self- determination." The Committee considers José Ramos Horta "the leading international spokesman for East Timor's cause since 1975."

Mr Ramos-Horta has been foreign minister since East Timor's independence in 2002.

The East Timor Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR) has submitted a 2,500-page report documenting the atrocities that occurred during Indonesia's occupation. According to the mandate under which the report was written, however, its findings will explicitly not lead to prosecution. What interest, then, did the government of East Timor have in such a report?

Well, there are two separate entities: the CAVR, to which you just referred, and the Truth and Friendship Commission. It is the latter, the Truth and Friendship Commission, that does not lead to prosecution.

The CAVR makes recommendations and although they do not lead to prosecution, one of the recommendations of the CAVR has been setting up an international tribunal.

So could you clarify which report was presented by your president to the United Nations?

The first one, the CAVR.

Is this the same report that was criticized for not having enough of a capacity to prosecute?

No, it is not the CAVR. The second one, the joint Truth and Friendship Commission, which we started now with Indonesia, that is the one that has been criticized; its terms of reference call for providing amnesty for those who cooperate in telling the truth. It does not lead to prosecution.

The terms of reference of this one have nothing to do with the CAVR.

So can you tell me about the Truth and Friendship Commission? What was the purpose of this body?

The CTF or the Commission for Truth and Friendship, its official name, was established in August 2005 by the two presidents of Indonesia and Timor-Leste. Its aim is telling the truth about the events of 1999, but in a unique way, and it is a joint effort between Indonesia and Timor-Leste. The Commission has five commissioners from each side, plus three alternates, so all together sixteen members, people who are independent from the two governments, who have a lot of integrity, professional competence, and who have credibility in their respective countries. Working together, they will dig out the truth and nothing but the truth about what happened in '99, to assign responsibility, and to look at the institutional failings. The Commission then may recommend amnesty for those who have cooperated in telling the truth, and who apologize and show remorse. So this is the CTF.

What are the contents of the report by the CAVR?

While the CTF deals only with the '99 events, CAVR deals with events going back to 1974, so it covers a period of 24 years.

Among its findings, the CAVR report alleges that napalm and chemical weapons were used by Indonesian soldiers; that "rape, sexual slavery and sexual violence were tools used as part of the campaign designed to inflict a deep experience of terror, powerlessness and hopelessness upon pro-independence supporters"; and that Indonesia's deliberate policy of starvation could have cost the lives of between 84,000 and 183,000 people between 1975 and 1999. You have said the report was "very accurate". What kind of compensation do you think the victims of these atrocities should ideally receive?

The East Timorese government does not believe that we should consider compensation for the victims because there are tens of thousands of people who were, in one way or another, affected by the violence either directly or indirectly. There are those who died by the thousands and those who are still considered "disappeared." It would be a mind-boggling endeavor to try to identify each individual who claims to have been a survivor of victimization during this period of 24 years. The East Timorese government rejected some of the recommendations of the Commission report where it called for compensation from a number of countries implicated during the 24-year occupation on the basis that many of the countries who were involved either through direct support to Indonesia or through indifference have all, since 1999, come around and provided significant support to East Timor for the restoration of peace and security, for nation-building, development and so on. How can we now turn around and say that what they have been doing since 1999 -- providing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to the UN peacekeeping operation in East Timor, to reconstruction, relief, and development assistance -- is not enough? How can we say that we still resent their past policies and demand that they pay compensation to the East Timorese?

Such a structure would also raise a number of problems: first of all, which Timorese to pay compensation to? It would open a can of worms in terms of who was really a victim and who was not. Besides, as my president says, when we embarked on the resistance, we did not do so in the expectation that one day we would get compensation from anyone. We embarked on the resistance for our country based on our beliefs and a sense of self-sacrifice. In any case, the international community has redeemed itself by coming around unanimously and deciding in 1999 to end the violence in East Timor and to build up from the ashes a new nation. This is the greatest act of justice, and we thank the international community for that, and we are not going to support the recommendations of our CAVR members in seeking compensation, not even from Indonesia.

Our government, in its legislation, has established mechanisms and funding to support veterans of the resistance, and hopefully, at the next stage as our economy and finances allow, we will create a national solidarity fund to help widows, orphans, and all people who are in need. This is the obligation of our state towards those in need, not only those who were victims of violence in the past, but just anyone who is in need. Orphans whose parents die in a car crash deserve equal attention, do they not? They do. A Timorese woman who has recently been a victim of rape by our own people, would she not be entitled to assistance like those Timorese women who were victims of rape by the Indonesian soldiers? So that is our approach.

Could you explain the terms of the treaty that East Timor has signed with Australia regarding energy resources from the Timor Sea? Would you say that revenue allocation, as outlined in the treaty, is equitable? Do you anticipate any change in these terms in the future?

On 12 January 2005, after almost three years of negotiations, where the two sides continued to proclaim their own sovereign claims on a maritime boundary, and being unable to resolve the differences, we decided: (i) to defer the resolution of the maritime boundary for 50 years; and (ii) to have a 50/50 per cent share of the resources in the Greater Sunrise area. Greater Sunrise is one of the richest gas fields in the entire Asia Pacific region. We believe that this is a win/win proposition, and now our parliament will ratify this agreement, and then I hope the oil companies, particularly Woodside, which is the largest investor, will proceed with the work, and bring the pipeline from Greater Sunrise to East Timor's southern coast.

This is an agreement only between Australia and East Timor?


So the maritime boundary decision has been deferred for 50 years, which means that the terms of the revenue allocation will also not change and therefore, for 50 years, revenues will be split equally between Australia and East Timor?


What other form of revenue generation is the government of East Timor developing?

Besides the agreement, which we celebrated on January 12th in regard to Greater Sunrise, we have an earlier treaty called the Timor Sea Treaty between Australia and East Timor, celebrated in May 2002. In another gas field, Bayu-Undan, we get 90 per cent of the revenues while Australia receives 10 per cent but with the pipeline going to Darwin. So most of the main downstream benefits go to Australia, and we only get 90 per cent of the upstream benefits. From the Bayu-Undan field alone we are already getting substantial revenues in tax and royalties, and these revenues will go further up, maybe to about $200-400 million a year starting in 2007.

We have already significant sums of money in our petroleum fund, a fund created by law that includes all the revenues received from the Timor Sea, and invests in conservative, safe, long-term investment portfolios -- right now in US Treasury Bonds. The government can access these funds but only following approval by the parliament to support our budget requirements and investments in infrastructure development, education, public health, and so on.

There are other possible investment revenues: tourism -- we are in the process of marketing East Timor as a tourist destination. Fisheries. Coffee exports are picking up. We also hope to attract foreign direct investment in the agro-industry sector and in other mining sectors, because we have marble and other minerals on shore, as well as oil and gas on shore.

How much economic aid does East Timor now receive, and who are its principal donors?

Our number one development partner remains Japan, followed by Portugal, Australia, the European Commission, the United States, the Nordic countries, the UK, Germany and New Zealand. Ireland is an important donor.

What about the World Bank and the IMF?

We do have some assistance from the World Bank but not from the IMF. We are not borrowing yet, but we are considering, in the future, borrowing from the Kuwait Fund to support our infrastructure development.

What kind of fund is that?

There is a body called the Kuwait Development Fund that provides loans to developing countries. The Fund is very generous, and we have a very good rapport with Kuwait, and the Kuwaitis are waiting for East Timor to apply for loans from them, and we will do so in another year or two.

And the terms of the loans are…?

Better than the World Bank, the IMF, or the ADB.

So what percentage of the budget is aid?

We do not have a budget support. We are now fully independent in terms of requirements, but we still have a need for development assistance separate from the budget. So all the economic aid we receive is for development assistance.

Prior to the US invasion of Iraq, you argued in an editorial in the New York Times that, "The use of force is often the necessary price of liberation."

Sometimes, yes.

Would you modify your claim now given what has transpired in Iraq since the invasion?

My article stated, and I said at the time, that the US should provide more time to the weapons inspectors, show more patience, and give a chance to the Secretary-General of the UN to mobilize international pressure to persuade Saddam Hussein to relinquish power and go into exile. This was the thrust of my article. Somehow this was translated or interpreted by different people as me endorsing intervention in Iraq. I said, and let me repeat what I said in the article, it is explicitly stated there: give more time to the weapons inspectors, ask Kofi Annan to intervene and persuade Saddam Hussein to leave office.

What I said in reference to possible intervention is what I still believe today, but it was not necessarily applicable to Iraq. What I said was that the use of force is not always legally or morally wrong. There have been situations of genocide in the past where the international community did absolutely nothing -- in the case of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, or Uganda under Idi Amin, or Rwanda -- and that was wrong. So the use of force is sometimes entirely justifiable in the face of genocide, in the face of imminent war, or to prevent imminent aggression.

In the case of Iraq, notwithstanding the violence there at the moment, the very fact that a hideous regime -- responsible for genocide, for the use of chemical and biological weapons, aggression against two neighbors -- has been removed in itself is a positive development. Another positive development is that millions of Iraqis defied the widespread violence and went to the polls several times to cast their vote. If the Iraqis were not happy with their new situation, they would have said no to the elections, they would not have voted, particularly in view of the violence that was taking place.

The violence occurring in Iraq is orchestrated by the remnants of Saddam Hussein, by Arab mercenaries, al-Qaeda and others, who are not interested in a secular, peaceful, and democratic Iraq. They want to impose their rule, their views of Islam, and their views of governance on Iraq like they once did successfully in Afghanistan during the Taliban period, until they were overthrown by force. So that is the challenge in Iraq today: either democratic and secular forces prevail, or the extremists, led by al-Qaeda and others, prevail. What is our choice?

But how do you think that democratic and secular forces can actually prevail under conditions of military occupation by a foreign country?

Well, madam, if there were not those conditions, a foreign military occupation, if the Americans were to listen to those who are calling for their withdrawal…

I didn't call for their withdrawal.

No, no, I am sorry, to those who call for their withdrawal, to end foreign occupation, I guarantee you the remnants of Saddam Hussein, al-Qaeda, Zarqawi take over. So that is the dilemma.

But that is a separate matter. One can say that under conditions of American military occupation radical Islamist forces may be prevented from coming into power and that it is not possible for secular, democratic forces to take root as long as the occupation continues. Both these things can be true.

Well, some people seem to view the conflict in Iraq as one caused only by the US intervention. Before the US intervention it was Saddam Hussein and his wars of aggression against his neighbors, his use of chemical and biological weapons, and his slaughter of Iraqis and Kurds. After Saddam Hussein, al-Qaeda and other extremist elements that were operating in Afghanistan, who had been ousted in Afghanistan, flocked to Iraq to carry out their battle there. The international community must side with the secular, moderate forces who have no weapons at their disposal, who are not fanatics, whose only tool of exercising their power is through the ballot box -- and this is what they have done, they have gone to the ballot box, they have voted in several elections in Iraq, while the insurgents are carrying weapons, while the insurgents and others have blown up civilians. That is their agenda.

So I would find it extremely dangerous, the proposition that the US or the coalition should vacate Iraq. They should, I also agree there should be a timetable, there should be a phased withdrawal, but in a very prudent manner so that the new, trained security forces and police in Iraq can take over.

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.

So in your view, in fact, the most important change before reforming or empowering the General Assembly, or altering the structure of the Security Council, the most important thing is to change the administrative structure of the UN, which is to say the UN Secretariat?

I would say so. It is a bit like in my own little country, in my own foreign ministry: I spend a lot of time trying again and again to improve our internal performance, even in details like punctuality, in terms of the way we deliver services to our people, in the way we examine promotions to ensure they are fair, at the way I insist again and again that more women should be brought into the ministry at senior leadership levels. If I don't do that and I think only of the grander, exterior aspects of my ministry, like opening more embassies, having more diplomatic activities, well, I don't have a solid house, a foundation behind me to sustain it. It could collapse. So the UN, on a bigger scale, is the same.

I would not rush too much in reforming the Security Council. I would go first to the General Assembly, because we have an endless agenda with repetitive debates, truckloads of documentation that are compiled each year that are mostly meaningless. We have to be serious, and be rational, and therefore be more effective and credible.

As far as the Security Council is concerned, well, it was not me who invented the veto in 1945. And I didn't create the five superpowers. They are there, and what does it mean? If I want to reform the Security Council -- and rightly so, it should be reformed to include countries like India that have a population of a billion today -- well, I'm sorry, but I have to talk to the P5 first. I have to use my persuasive skills, I have to use common sense, charm maybe, to persuade the five that they have to make room for others in this day and age, rather than me making grand plans, and then being unable to persuade the Security Council, the P5, to go along with the plans. I would start by engaging them in dialogue. This might take months, it might take years, but I have to deal with the P5, and don't blame me for that, because I didn't create this structure in 1945; I wasn't even born in 1945!

Of the regions that are up for filling the slot of Secretary-General, or of the names that have been put forward, could you comment on whether East Timor has a preference for whether, regionally, it is time for Asia to replace Africa, or whether it makes a difference if there's an eastern European, an African, or an Asian?

Well, absolutely, East Timor supports the notion that it is Asia's turn, although I also agree with US Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, when he says that they should be able to look all over the world for the best possible candidate. That makes sense. But I am persuaded that in a region of the world with more than two billion people we have more than enough possible candidates that could meet the requirements for the job of Secretary-General.

My government's policy is that whenever there is an ASEAN candidate for any position in the UN, whether an individual candidate, or a country's candidacy for a position in the UN system, we always support the ASEAN candidate. That is a fixed policy. So there is no point in any country coming to me to seek my support against an ASEAN candidate. We will support an ASEAN candidate.

So I have been among the very first to endorse the candidacy of my good friend, former foreign minister, current deputy prime minister of Thailand, Dr. Surakiart Sathirathai. We remain committed to supporting his candidacy. Obviously, you know as well as I do, that my support, or East Timor's support, does not count much! In the end, the P5 and the other members of the Council make the decision. But if my verbal endorsement is a consolation, well, I am re-stating it.

So last question now: there are elections scheduled in East Timor in the coming year?

Yes, in February or March of 2007.

Will the UN oversee the elections?

We hope so. We have asked the United Nations to provide electoral assistance, including logistics, technical advice, and financing. We have asked the Secretary-General and Security Council to authorize a continuation of a special political office in East Timor to coordinate all the political and logistic needs of the country. But we still need foreign advisors for the government. We would still like to have some police advisors. Although we are doing very well, East Timor remains, and rightly so, a success story of the UN, there are still many things that are fragile, and prudence would have it that the UN should stay put on a much smaller scale, but it should support us. The election next year will be a milestone: the first elections for the presidency, and the legislature, since our independence in 2002. So we want it to be absolutely flawless, and we alone could not do it. So we hope the international community will provide full support to our efforts at having flawless elections.

What do you think the outcome is likely to be of the elections? Are there likely to be several parties contesting?

Yes, there are several parties. Right now we have 12 parties in parliament, but with the reduced size of our parliament from 88 to 65, chances are that many of the smaller parties will disappear; maybe three, or four, or maximum five, will survive. I hope no less than that, because in a country like East Timor, a developing country anywhere, you need a certain plurality. I do not believe in the two-party system. I believe that even in a small country like East Timor, a certain greater plurality is necessary, so that even the smallest parties, the smallest individuals can feel that they are part of the system, they can express their opinions in the parliament.

I believe that Fretelin, the current ruling party, will continue to score better and will win the next round of elections. I just cannot say whether it will be a bigger majority than it has today, or a smaller majority, but it will win, so that will ensure some continuity and stability in the country.

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh