21 August 2008, 10:30 hrs
UNMIT Headquarters, Obrigado Barracks, Dili, Timor-Leste
The following is a near-verbatim transcript of a press conference by The Deputy Provedor for Human Rights and Justice, Mr Silverio Pinto Baptista and the Chief of UNMIT’s Human Rights and Transitional Justice Section, Mr Louis Gentile.
Silverio Pinto Baptista: I would like to thank the UNMIT Human Rights and Transitional Justice Section for bringing to light the very important issues of human rights in Timor-Leste. There has been mixed reaction to the report and some people have claimed that the report contains misinformation. I would like to assure all of you that this reports reflects the real situation of human rights in Timor-Leste.
As you know, the work performed by those who work in the area of human rights is a challenge. You have public authorities who sometimes fail to comply with the law or the existing procedures and there are various actors who deal with human rights issues including the UNMIT Human Rights and Transitional Justice Section, the Office of the Provedor for Human Rights and the HAQ Association as well as the human rights network.
In relation to the most recent human rights development, the most important incident was the attempted attack on the President on 11 February and as result or the attack a stage of siege was declared throughout the country. Some people believe that it was a positive step to establish the state of siege, but as a consequence there were allegations of human rights abuses being committed by the PNTL and the F-FDTL operating together under the Joint Command.
Another human rights issue in Timor-Leste relates to the rights of victims as outlined in the CAVR report. There is a working group which is comprised of members of the UMIT Transitional Justice Section as well as ICTJ and other members of civil society including the HAQ organisation, Fokupers, the Office of the Provedor and the Baucau Human Rights NGO. They have consulted with victims and presented the information to Committee A of Parliament- Committee A just recently issued a policy in the form of a resolution in relation to the CAVR report. However, we don’t think that this is enough so the working group is continuing to engage in consultation and in the near future has asked Committee A to take up this issue again in the Plenary Session to discuss possible reparations for victims.
Another human rights issue which is of some concern are the pardons given by the President to the perpetrators of crimes in 1999 as well the former interior minister Rogerio Lobato. Another issue we need to address related to justice- based on the results of monitoring we’ve conducted into the incidents of 2006, we know that many cases are still pending before the courts. The public prosecution has explained that insufficient evidence in many cases has caused a backlog. Our major concern is that a lot of defendants/suspects have not had their status clearly defined and they still have no information about whether their cases will be pursued in court. This needs to be addressed quickly as the cases need to be investigated and dealt with promptly and they should not be left pending as the defendants may lose their right to liberty.
Louis Gentile: I’m not going to dwell too much on the details of the report but rather make some observations and general conclusions about where we are in terms of human rights in Timor-Leste and how we can move forward. This report concentrates from the period September 2007 to June 2008 and focuses specifically on the security sector and access to justice issues.
This means that consequently in this report, we are not talking about many other important areas of human rights in which we work, including the protection of rights of women and children and the work on the human rights and monitoring of the IDPs which is a current and pressing issue in Timor-Leste. It also doesn’t include the very important work in a country like Timor-Leste on economic, cultural or social rights or education. When I say it doesn’t include these areas, I mean that it doesn’t do a comprehensive review of our work in these very important subjects. So the subsequent reports that we issue in the coming years will have a much greater focus in these areas.
This is the 20th anniversary of my work in human rights and in these 20 years I have worked in areas which have been plagued by conflict, where people have been killed on a massive scale, where there have been severe cases of torture on a daily basis, and after 20 years, I have learnt two principle lessons about human rights work.
The first lesson is that the old fashioned and traditional way of doing human rights work where you have a small group of UN personnel from a couple of agencies and a few NGOs promoting human rights and criticising government and security forces with very few others deeply engaged in human rights work is not a very effective way of promoting human rights. What we are trying to do in Timor-Leste is build partnerships very broadly and very widely with government institutions, with civil society, with journalists, students and all sectors of society so everybody feels engaged with promoting and protecting human rights. And we are especially happy that we have national human rights institutions as our partner, the Provedor for Human Rights and Justice, which has the capacity to do investigations into human rights violations and to monitor and report on human rights.
We recommend in the Report very strongly that the Provedor’s Office be given the necessary resources to do their work including material and financial resources, to have the proper staffing to do their work in the districts and to build on the very important work that they are doing.
The second most important lesson I have learned in these past 20 years is that where there is greatest danger of massive violations of human rights in particular is during situations of conflict. So avoiding conflict and ensuring peace and stability is absolutely essential for ensuring the promotion and protection of human rights. Therefore, we also have to acknowledge that getting through this very difficult period from September 2007 through to February and getting to the security and stability at its current level is quite an achievement given all the circumstances.
I think if look objectively at the situation now, we can see that we are really at a crossroads now in terms of human rights in Timor-Leste. A lot of the elements are in the place for Timor-Leste to be among the leaders in developing counties in respect for human rights. But in order to reach that level there are four primary hurdles that need to be overcome.
The first relates to accountably. Accountability for those who violate human rights. Accountability for violations of human rights that have taken place in the past and for those that continue in the present. You will see in the report other of areas where we talk about accountability, in relation to 1999, in relation to 2006, in relation to violations committed during the state of siege and in relation to the situation in general in Timor-Leste. And we take note and are encouraged by the statements by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, leaders of the Government, the President and even members of parliament from all parties who have urged that there be accountability for crimes committed and violations committed.
The second hurdle relates to security sector reform and that again is linked to accountability for those who commit violations within the security forces and also includes a clear delineation of responsibility so the police and military understand very clearly what there roles are.
The third challenge relates to domestic based and gender based violence and I should say that this is a challenge for every country in the world, including my own which is Canada. But we all need to understand that if we believe that violence is ok within the home, then we are almost certain to have violence outside the home.
The final hurdle or challenge is related to economic development and the realisation of economic and social rights for all Timorese. We bring attention to the fact that there are national priorities set to address the fundamental economic problems. There is a UN development assistance framework signed with the government which will attempt to address the economic development challenges in the coming years. But the realisation of these plans in a practical way- so that poor Timorese citizens can have their economic rights realised- is really key to whether or not we can say there has been true progress and if this country can be a model of human rights protection for this region and for the world.
To conclude, while it’s going to be extremely difficult to overcome these four hurdles and to achieve real progress, it is possible and work has already begun in all four areas and progress has already been made. The possibility is there before us if we are all engaged in this effort, I believe it can be achieved.
Spokesperson Allison Cooper: Are there any questions?
Q: Can you explain why the Presidental Amnesty law wasn’t included in the report and what you are doing about this law and what your opinion is on this?
Louis Gentile: There is a draft being worked on, but there is no amnesty law yet per se that has been passed or proposed before parliament or as a decree law. The opinion the Mission and the High Commissioner for Human Rights is that amnesty in respect of serious crimes committed in 2006 is not a good idea. In fact, we are pursuing accountability for those very crimes and we even support the position of one prosecutor in the Office of the Prosecutor-General who is working on pursuing prosecutions for crimes committed in 2006.
Q: Has the President’s Office been supportive of your comments? What was the feedback?
Louis Gentile: The initial feed back we received was positive and there were some revisions made to the initial draft and we’re still in discussions about the final draft of the amnesty law. We’re hoping that either there won’t be an amnesty law, or that it will be one that will include only minor offences in its scope.
Q: The report mentions allegations of violations made by the Joint Command. Do these allegations relate to serious crimes? And have any of the allegations been followed up? The COI report has yet to be followed up by the Government – What is your opinion on this matter and what are your observations on human rights abuses in Timor-Leste?
Louis Gentile: There were 58 allegations relating to the Joint Command during the state of siege. Most of these involved the ill-treatment and beatings of citizens, some of them involved death threats- in fact there were 6 death threats issues. We did not find the most serious or grave types of human rights offences which we would call deprivation of the right to life, disappearance or extreme torture in these violations. Nevertheless, ill-treatment of this nature, beatings and threats, are very serious and must be taken very seriously by the security forces and accountability must be followed up. We’ve had various promises about accountability and the Deputy Provedor will explain this a little further. At the Security Council on Tuesday, the Minster of Foreign Affairs again reiterated the Government’s commitment to pursue accountability for violations committed during the state of siege. He said that the respective secretaries of state will be asked to follow up to ensure accountability in the cases reported.
Silverio Pinto Baptista: In relation to allegations of violations by the Joint Command, we had allegations relating to both physical and psychological violations. If these violations were against members of the security forces, we notified the commanders of the forces. The Office of the Provedor had received 54 complains. Of these, 44 have been investigated and this process is continuing and we hope that in October we can make recommendations on these 44 cases.
Of course if there is evidence of physical assault, then we submit our recommendations to the public prosecutor’s office to take action according to the criminal law. If there is evidence of mismanagement of the security forces, then we will make our recommendations to the respective commanders of the F-FDTL and PNTL and urge them to take the necessary disciplinary measures. I myself have been monitoring the situation with Mr Gentile’s Deputy, and the two of us have been talking to the commanders and they have made many promises to us about taking preventative measures.
About the COI report- The COI was formed at the request of the Government who asked the UN to set up this inquiry. I have been involved in monitoring and we have spoken to the members of the Prosecutor-General’s office and we have received information that a number of cases related to this period are still pending. They haven’t closed permanently but are pending due to a lack of insufficient evidence. Another issue is that people who currently remain in prison and who have not had any follow-up with their cases. In terms of human rights, this shouldn’t happen. People should be arrested and promptly informed of the charges against them and their guilt or innocence should be promptly ascertained by a court of law. We think the Government should provide the necessary funds to ensure that this sort of thing doesn’t happen.
In relation to February 11, we’ve set up some teams comprised of members of the Provedor’s Office, civil society and the UNMIT Human Rights section. A few days ago I spoke with the Minister of Justice and the Prosecutor-General about monitoring and got a very positive response. The Minster informed that we didn’t need her permission to conduct monitoring- but monitoring is all we can do.
Q: You mentioned that the Government has been responding positively to the concerns that are being raised but the SRSG said to the Security Council on Tuesday that it’s not clear how effectively the Government’s concerns are being institutionalised and articulated further down the ranks. Where do you perceive the blockage to be? Is the Government just not following up on its word or is there an inability to articulate its messages down the ranks?
Louis Gentile: I think there are two obstacles: one of process and another of will. The one of process involves ensuring the proper mechanisms exist within the security forces to ensure the people are held accountable for violations. For the PNTL, those mechanisms are in place on paper, but there is a problem of will. For example, we know of cases where an officer has been recommended for suspension but the suspension has not been executed. In the case of the F-FDTL, there is also a question of a proper process that is formalised within the military to ensure accountability for violations and proper disciplinary actions. There are some formal instructions, but not yet a formal process that is working in the military to ensure accountability. So, it is a question of both will and proper structures. In both cases, even at the level of services themselves, commanders have given assurances that there will be accountability. So, maybe it’s too early to judge, but it has been a significant amount of time already and we feel that it is legitimate now to ask for results and we have not yet seen those results.
There is also the criminal justice system and they are conducting a number of investigation. Those which are found to be reports of criminal acts, then those can be sent to the Prosecutor-General and they can be prosecuted under the criminal law. This is a safeguard to ensure discipline when it’s not been implemented within the security forces themselves.
Q: In the report, it emphasises that there has been a lot of training done for the security forces and the SRSG expressed his contentment at more training. However it seems that whenever the security forces move away from the supervision of UNMIT or UNPOl, they don’t really demonstrate that they have learned anything from the trainings. Do you think the trainings are working?
Louis Gentile: I think that’s a very difficult question to answer because it’s a subjective answer as to whether or not the trainings have produced some positive results, but I would argue that given that the training is being conducted not just by the UN but by important bi-lateral partners, I think it vital that that kind of training continue- indeed it needs to be intensified. If you look at military training all around the world, you will see that they are months long, they are very intensive, they include simulations, they are re-trained again re-trained through the course of their career and we would think that Timor-Leste is the same as any other country where they are trying to professionalize the military where the training would need to be continuous and on-going over the course of many years. And I think that many of the bilateral partners are committed to that kind of approach.
In terms of the results of the training done to date, we can say that we did not see, despite the conditions of volatility and insecurity, that we did not see the gravest violations of human rights that we see in many other parts of the world. Whether or not this has anything to do with the training, no one can really say, but perhaps it does have something to do with the training.
Q: You mentioned the security sector review- in the last few months, how many times has the panel met?
Louis Gentile: My only response to that is that the point I’m trying to make as a hurdle for the security sector review, this is a major challenge. Now that there is something major signed, the question is how effective will be? Will it be implemented? Will it be a true professionalization of the security forces? Of course it is far too early in the process to make a judgement of that. But I get your point about the lack of effective follow up and of course that’s of some concern, but let’s see how things go forwards. This is a crucial area of human rights that a reform take place and a clear delineation of roles of the police and the military be solidified in Timorese law and regulation.
Spokesperson Allison Cooper: Thank you everyone. That concludes the press conference.