Celebrating Human Rights Day in Timor-Leste



As the world celebrates Human Rights Day on 10 December, it is a good time to pause to reflect on the status of human rights in Timor-Leste. 13 years after the end of Indonesian rule and after ten years of independence, the question arises as to whether Timor-Leste’s aspirations to respecting notions of human rights, as outlined in its Constitution, have been successful.

Notions of human rights are broadly located in two categories; civil and political rights and social, economic and cultural rights. It is conventional to regard these respective categories of rights as being equal in value and mutually dependent.

Civil and political rights include, among others, to life, to self-determination, freedom of speech, assembly, and the rights from arbitrary arrest, detention and torture. As an independent state, the people of Timor-Leste enjoy self-determination, they have a high level of freedom of speech and assembly and generally enjoy the rights ‘from’.

There are, however, qualifications. There have been moves, at various times, for political actors to try to curb free expression, particularly of the media. It is reasonable for individuals to be protected against public false or malicious accusation. But it is not reasonable to be protected from legitimate criticism. The idea of public life, in particular, is that individuals should be accountable for their actions, and discussion of those actions is a legitimate area of public concern.

Similarly, freedom of assembly has been tested from time to time, when groups of protesters have gathered to demonstrate for or against particular issues. The qualification on freedom of assembly is that it must be lawful, which usually implies being non-violent. This has not always been the case, and the official response has sometimes been excessive.

The police have been noted for their occasional brutality, in some sense continuing to reflect the idea that it is legitimate for them to mete out punishment. Conventionally, the police should employ a minimum of violence and leave it to the courts to mete out punishment.

Similarly, while there is little chance of arbitrary arrest or detention in Timor-Leste, definitions of torture might include excessive police violence. On these points, Timor-Leste probably fares less well than some other countries. Having said this, there have been significant attempts to reform the police force and to shift its culture away from that informed by occupation-era policing methods.

Having access to an impartial judicial system is also key to ensuring that rights are me. While Timor-Leste’s courts are not known for their bias, apart from the lack of trained judges, they do have one serious problem; language.

It is axiomatic that in order to receive justice, one must be able to communicate with the court. Yet in Timor-Leste, the judicial process is undertaken in Portuguese, lawyers are often trained in Indonesian, Tetum is the common language of defendants and complainants and ‘home’ languages are often their first and most fluent linguistic choice.

This means that there are often two, sometimes three and even four levels of translation required to undertake judicial proceedings, with the consequent loss of meaning in all directions and what has been reported to be over-interpretation by some translators. Without re-visiting the wider language debate, the judicial process highlights the need to standardise one national language across Timor-Leste as quickly as possible.
There have been some suggestions, notably from some of my academic colleagues, that Timor-Leste should rely more on traditional justice systems as a means to overcome the inability of the more formal system to cope. Traditional justice does reflect local culture, but it is often inconsistent, favors the powerful and in some cases makes serious errors both of process and outcome.

Traditional justice, then, is not a panacea for a still young judicial system under stress. The only answer that can guarantee equity and consistency, and hence human rights, is the formal judicial system working better.

Moving away from civil and political rights, social, economic and cultural rights in Timor-Leste are a mixed bag. Social rights seem to be well respected, as do cultural rights. Indeed, there has been a flourishing of Timorese culture since the end of the occupation.

However, the economic rights of Timorese are less well protected. In short, economic rights mean the rights of all to adequate nutrition, shelter, education and health care – the broadly conceived human development indicators (HDIs). There have been big improvements in a number of key HDI areas, in particular including infant and maternal mortality, while longevity has also improved.

However, such economic development as there has been has been uneven and very Dili-centric. The government intends to tackle this problem by introducing decentralisation, while its system of (relatively expensive) pensions has assisted some less well-off Timorese.

Needless to say, all developing countries have problems in these areas and improvements never occur as quickly as people would like. It is also important to remember that Timor-Leste started from a very low economic base. But there are also legitimate questions around government spending priorities, particularly the percentage of the budget allocated to health and education.

On balance, many Timorese remain poor, but the current government, and those before it, appear to be genuinely concerned to improve the lot of the people.

In some senses, notions of human rights, like democracy, remains a process rather than a specific destination. The idea is to have a commitment to the aspiration and then continue to give as much practical support to that aspiration as is possible. Like democracy, it is always to be strived for, never complete or perfect, and always in need of support and advocacy.

In large part, too, a people who have not enjoyed democratic processes or notions of human rights, are sometimes less able to easily incorporate them into how they understand the world. It is not unreasonable to expect that, before they fully understand and accept new ways of doing things, they will revert to what they know.

Unfortunately, sometimes pre-existing practice exists because it has worked for power holders and because there has been no better, more equitable system to replace it. There is, now, in Timor-Leste, a better and more equitable system.

There will always be a clash between tradition and progress, the way things have always been done and how they could be done better, and between the pre-existing rights of some with the universal rights of all. This is to be expected, in all societies, and Timor-Leste is no different, even if it is having to jump over a large cultural gap in a short period of time.

Finally, there is the question of a culture of impunity, particularly over the gross human rights violations perpetrated right up to the very end of the occupation. Rights cannot be guaranteed, or even respected, if people who abuse rights are allowed to escape being held accountable for their crimes.

Sadly, the real politik of Timor-Leste is relation to its dominant neighbour, Indonesia, means that Indonesia is very unlikely to hold responsible those people who have committed serious human rights violations in Timor-Leste and the government of Timor-Leste has no effective leverage with which to prosecute such cases.

This is where the international community continues to have a very large responsibility. If it was appropriate to pursue and prosecute gross human rights violators from former Yugoslavia, then it is equally appropriate that they be pursued and prosecuted from Indonesia.

But as we celebrate Human Rights Day, the people of Timor-Leste have much they can still be thankful for. Independence never delivers the high aspirations that people wish for it and Timor-Leste still has a long way to go in terms of delivering to its people across a range of areas that could be considered part of the human rights equation.

But there is, in Timor-Leste, a genuine and widely accepted appreciation of the fundamental notions of human rights, and an increasing framing of internal debates in human rights terms. For a country formally committing to respecting human rights, the people of Timor-Leste are increasingly giving substance to that principle.