The Peace Advocate

Metro Magazine - Monday, March 01, 2004

Jose Ramos-Horta knows war. During the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, one-third of the country’s population died in the violence that ensued or by starvation. Among them were three of his brothers and a sister. Irwin Cruz asks the outspoken Nobel Peace Prize winner and Timorese Foreign Minister his thoughts about the state of his country and peace in the New World Order.

Your Excellency, you supported the US entry into Afghanistan when the Taliban was still in power. Do you think the entry of Allied forces in Iraq was justified?

I say this: I supported the Vietnamese unilateral intervention of Cambodia in 1979 to oust the Khmer Rouge regime, one of the most barbaric since WWII, causing mass killings and genocide in Cambodia. The same year Tanzania unilaterally intervened in Uganda and ended the despotic regime of Idi Amin. I supported that. And then there was NATO’s unilateral intervention in Kosovo that ended the Milosevic genocide. I supported this. And I supported the UN-authorized intervention in Afghanistan and the US-led intervention in Iraq to end Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime and genocide. Many people oppose the latter intervention partly because it wasn’t authorized by the Security Council. My question is, was the Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia – also unilateral – wrong, illegitimate and therefore immoral? How about NATO in Kosovo? For those who argue that for every intervention there must be a Security Council mandate, I ask if for political reasons, it cannot agree to authorize one, then what? Should we allow a genocide to take place, like it happened in Rwanda? The Council did not act, and 800.000 people died. I ask those who always say that the UN is the sole authority to legitimize an intervention, what do they say then? What do they say about the genocide in Cambodia and Uganda, which the UN did nothing about? It will be much more comfortable and politically correct to say no to the US intervention. But then what do we say to the many victims of Saddam’s regime? Iraqis, Iranians and Kurds? That they should be patient and wait for a few more years because the Security Council has not yet agreed to oust Saddam? My intention is to also ask uncomfortable questions and not just make moralistic and politically correct statements.

Do you feel that the UN lost some of its credibility when the US and UK decided to enter Iraq without a UN mandate? What do you think about the organization today?

If the UN loses ist credibility because of the Iraq war, then the UN itself must ask why it is losing credibility. Was the US-led intervention a reflection of the US tendency to intervene unilaterally or is it a reflection of the failure of multilaterism? I go back to the same question – where was multilaterism during the Cambodian and Rwandan genocides? The international community and the Security Council must ask themselves these questions: Why was it necessary for the US to intervene unilaterally in Iraq? Why did we give the US an excuse to act unilaterally? It is too simplistic to blame the US. In the 21st century. Can we accept a regime of that nature, that wages war with its neighbours, loses them but still stays in power and uses biological weapons? And we say we cannot intervene because it is against international law.

Are you saying that the UN and international law are not adequate enough to address international crises quickly?

The problem is there are enough international conventions that impose in all states to respect human rights and to punish genocide. The problem is, however, like with everything else in international politics, there is the question of selectivity and moral and political courage for states to intervene. Am I saying that the US has moral right to intervene in Iraq or that the US is the best moral barometer in the world? Well, not exactly. The US together with France, Russia and the UK all supported Saddam the previous years. They all turned a blind eye at him for most of his regime until the Gulf War. So the US is not exactly a moral barometer or arbiter. I am not saying that, I would prefer to say that: „the US as an unchallenged superpower should show more patience and give more time to the weapon inspectors. Second, the US should give the Secretary-General some time to mobilize a group of leaders to persuade Saddam to leave office.“ The problem of Iraq is not only the question of weapons of mass destruction. For me it was the very existence of a regime that shouldn’t have been there a long time ago. Its very existence was a challenge and a thorn to human consciousness and humanity. So every diplomatic means should’ve been explored to persuade Saddam to leave office and spare his country and people another war. I didn’t endorse the invasion. But having invaded, the US did a great thing. At the same time, it should be more humble and smarter in amending its relations with the rest of the world, to walk halfway in meeting Europeans and Russia, to hand over the responsibility to the UN, and to guide the transition in Iraq. The US doesn’t have any experience, besides its role in Japan 60 years ago, in nation-building. Actually, the Bush administration never believed in it, even with regards to East Timor. When Bush took over, we had to persuade his government to continue supporting UN efforts on the island. Then suddenly, after the invasion of Iraq, it wants to appear as the architect of the new Iraq. The US should be given this mandate, but not in the sense to just invade and then pass the hot potato to the UN. The US should stay and engage in Iraq because there is no other power that an take its place in Iraq. The UN should sanction its presence and there should be more effort to involve Arab countries, through the Arab League for instance. The Arabs themselves should stop criticizing and start doing something. Look at the example of East Timor. Asian countries, in particular ASEAN countries, they took leadership in peacekeeping and reconstruction. It is an example of regional leadership, led by ASEAN, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea. It was a good example of coalition-building. The US should bring in the Arabs in transition in Iraq. But the Arabs also must show leadership and initiative, and not only complain about the US intervention and don’t step in despite all the risks involved.

Is ASEAN of any importance to East Timor? So far, only Thailand and Malaysia have embassies in Dili.

In the medium and long term, joining ASEAN is our strategic objective. In the short term, we have attempted to build strong bilateral relations with each and every one. The ASEAN countries have shown strong solidarity with us. And so, besides fostering bilateral relations, we also hope to join the ARF (ASEAN Regional Forum) as an immediate goal, perhaps sometime this year. Maybe in a year or two, observer status in ASEAN before full membership, five or six years from now.

East Timor has a strong diplomatic relationship with Portugal. You even share embassies in Brussels, the UN and Australia. What has Portugal done to put East Timorese issues within the sight of the EU and other Western countries?

The Portuguese role in the 80s and 90s was critical and decisive for turning the tide in our struggle for international recognition. It was Portugal that invested the most effort in educating and mobilizing its EU partners, so that the EU then became the most important forum for our case. It was Portugal also which mobilized multilateral organizations like the Iberia-Latin Amerinca Congress of Head of States. Its MP’s mobilized the EU Parliament as well as the EU – ACP Joint Assembly. I must say, without the Portuguese initiative and leadership, I don’t think we would be free today because East Timor would have been removed from the international agenda a long time ago.

Indonesia will have parliamentary elections next month and a presidential poll in July. How close is East Timor watching the political developments in Jakarta?

Like everyone else in the region, we closely follow the developments in Indonesia. It is a dominant ASEAN partner, one of the most important players in world affairs because of its size, and the third largest democracy in he world. It is an imperfect democracy, but it has strong civil society and media. Despite of its imperfections, it has been quite an example, showing the rest of Asia and the Muslim world that democracy can also prosper in Muslim countries. So it is extremely important that democracy prevails and consolidates in Indonesia. We have developed good report with Megawati Sukarno Putri. She has shown statesmanship and courage in the relationship between Indonesia and East Timor. If the Indonesian people decide to elect her again, the East Timorese will be more than happy. She is a very steady, predictable leader. If they decide on another, then that is their sovereign right and we will do our best to continue the fraternal relationship between East Timor and Indonesia.

The Laminaria-Corallina oil field is said to belong to East Timor under International Law of the Sea. What has your government done to regain to this? Your country is among the poorest in the world, ranking among Angola, Rwanda and Guinea-Bissau. Is oil the island’s way to economic independence?

East Timor and Australia has a treaty in the Bayu-Undan region. This guarantees 90% of revenue to East Timor. However this area is a very modest one. In any case, it will come into production only in 2007. The more complex issue for our two countries to resolve is our maritime boundary. The East Timorese hold the view that, based on international law on the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for coastal states, the principle of median line for states whose EEZ overlap should apply. That has been the practice of the international community for a long time already and has become customary law. If this were to be applied and respected by Australia, then East Timor would take possession of all the oil and gas fields outside the current treaty. That means Greater Sunrise, Buffalo, Laminaria and Corallina. That would easily mean USD1bn a year in revenues for East Timor for 25 – 30 years. It would obviously make East Timor one of the richest countries in the world per capita. However, precisely because what is at stake is of enormous wealth, the negotiations are not going to be easy. We will continue with these negotiations through the course of the year and the year to come, hoping some time in the future we will reach a win-win solution with Australia. We also begin negotiations with our common maritime boundary with Indonesia. On our land boundaries, we have made significant progress and in a month or two, we could conclude the negotiations and agree on the demarcation.

With the world so much preoccupied with the fight against terrorism, how do smaller, less developed countries such as East Timor convince bigger nations that development is still relevant?

I don’t agree with the generalization and simplistic analysis linking poverty with terrorism. I do not see a real link. If we were to follow this line of thinking, we would assume the whole of Africa would be full of terrorist organizations. It is a continent that has been most used and abused by all powers of this world, going back to colonialism, slavery, the Cold War. Everybody played out their rivalries in Africa. And yet can we find a single terrorist organization based in sub-Saharan Africa? You could say the same for East Timor. It is the poorest country in Asia and should therefore be the no.1 terrorist country. It is not. We don’t have fanatic, anti-Western groups although the US and other Western countries are the origin of the tragedy of East Timor in the 1970s. What I believe is responsible are some Islamic schools where students are brainwashed and are taught hatred and racism. But that is only part of the reason. Some US policies in the Middle East have fueled anger and facilitated the ongoing propaganda against it. But if the US chooses to do otherwise, then it will be able to pull the carpet under those brainwashed. Unfortunately, it is distressing and depressing to see that in the West more money is spent on weapon systems, cosmetics, and pet food, and less on development aid. It has been 20 years since the UN recommended nations to set aside 0.7% of their national budget for overseas development aid (ODA). But only four nations have achieved this: Denmark, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands. Japan, Germany, UK and US average between 0.2% - 0.4%. Meanwhile Western nations spend USD 300 billion in agricultural subsidies and restrict access of products from Caribbean, African and Asian countries to richer markets. As you can see, trade talks in Monterrey and Cancun last year failed. Rich countries don’t realize they need poor countries to buy their products, but they can’t do that if they remain poor. That is why Brazil and India are now building their own free trade agreements. India alone can satisfy the needs of the entire Mercosur region. But poorer countries like Nepal, Laos, Mozambique, Uganda [and East Timor] cannot enter into their own FTA.

I want to go back to this summit’s theme of peace. What can the world learn from East Timor?

In East Timor, the resistance forces never targeted Indonesian civilians, only the military. There were no kidnappings of Indonesian farmers and the like. If we had embarked on that, then we would not be free today. No one would have heard our cause. So I say to those groups, any group out there fighting for some legitimate cause: abandon violence. It serves no purpose. Especially nowadays, when we are all interconnected by the media and the internet, which can bring the world’s attention to a cause. There is no need for desperate acts of violence. As long as Palestine never departs from violence, it will gain little sympathy and support. You never saw that in the anti-apartheid movements in South Africa. What is needed is a change of tactics. And the Israelis, with the experience of the Holocaust, should be the first ones to set the example in recognizing the Palestinians‘ rights. I advise Palestine to stop the violence, to stop sending its own people to death. It will not win sympathy for the Palestine people. It should engage in a more peaceful approach. The past thirty years have brought nothing. It should abandon violence and take Gandhi’s approach of peaceful civil disobediance. If for instance 4 million Palestinians stop going to work, then Israel will be paralyzed. That will be far more effective and generate so much sympathy.

Irwin Cruz interviewed HE Jose Ramos-Horta at the Dusit Thani during his visit for the International Peace Foundation’s Bridges – Dialogues.