An interview with the head of Timor-Leste's national human rights institution.
Khoo Ying Hooi – Timor-Leste became a fully independent republic with a parliamentary form of government on May 20, 2002. On the human rights front, the Office of the Provedor for Human Rights and Justice (PDHJ/Provedoria dos Direitos Humanos e Justica) was established just two years later, in May 2004, drawing much admiration for this post-conflict small country.
The PDHJ is Timor-Leste's national human rights institution (NHRI). It is empowered to review complaints, conduct investigations, and forward recommendations to prevent or redress illegality or injustice to the competent organs. The PDHJ has a two-fold mandate in the areas of human rights and good governance. The office has achieved some notable progress in its own way. It had proudly been admitted as a full member in the Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions (APF) and enjoys status "A" from the International Coordinating Committee of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (ICC).
Khoo Ying Hooi spoke with Dr. Silverio Pinto Baptista, the provedor for human rights and justice, to explore the role and function of the PDHJ in promoting and protecting human rights in Timor-Leste as well as its challenges with the national government. Dr. Baptista was first appointed by the National Parliament to the position of deputy ombudsman in 2005 and was then sworn into office as the provedor in 2014. During his student days, he participated in student organizations supporting Timor-Leste's independence. Prior to his appointment, Dr. Baptista worked for the Association for Rights (HAK) to provide legal assistance to Timorese captured by the Indonesian military.
Khoo Ying Hooi: What is your assessment of the PDHJ's role since its establishment in 2005?
Dr. Silverio Pinto Baptista: Our institution was established in 2005. But our law, which is our Statute, was approved by the Parliament and approved by our president in 2004, through Law No. 7/2004. After one year, the Parliament nominated the first provedor, and two deputies, who were sworn in the Parliament in July 2005. Of course, as a new institution back then, we faced a lot difficulties and challenges because there was only the provedor and his two deputies. In the first year, we received support from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), from the United Nations (UN), and also from the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM). So, we spent around nine months to strengthen our institution, including recruiting our staff, and established our internal procedure.
In 2006, exactly on March 20, we opened our door to receive complaints from the public. Right after we opened our door to the public to receive complaints, our country faced a major political crisis. So, it was a very difficult time for us as a new institution, as we lacked staff, and lacked skill as well. To overcome that, we tried to organize with and work with the civil society and the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) based in Dili. And, we agreed to establish one joint network. We called it the Joint Monitoring Team.
In 2009, we tried to open our regional office because after three to four years, in our experience, we did not receive complaints from Oecusse region. Oecusse is an enclave. Now, we have four offices: the Main Office in Dili and the four Regional Offices in Oecusse, Maliana (to cover districts in the western part), Same (to cover districts in the southern part), and Baucau (to cover districts in the eastern part). Today, we have 95 staff.
As a NHRI, based on our Statute, we have two mandates: with one in the field of human rights and another one in the field of good governance. Before we changed our Organic Law, we had five national divisions in our main office, which are the divisions of human rights, good governance, public assistance, and administration and finance, including our regional offices. But, recently, our Organic Law has been changed from Law No. 25/2011 to our new Organic Law with Law 31 in 2016. So, now, we have six to seven national divisions, including our main office. Our structure here is both structural and functional; structural at the top level, but at the bottom level, functional.
Very often, NHRIs in Southeast Asia suffer from a lack of budget. How is the budget situation of the PDHJ?
Well, I can say that the budget continues to increase from year to year. But it also depends on our proposal and our lobby to the Parliament. We have to advocate and approach the government as well as the Parliament to [ask them to] give additional budget to us. We tried to manage the budget from the state budget, and we also receive support from UN agencies and from embassies based in Dili.
Since 2006, we have received support for the capacity-building project from the UNDP. We focused mainly on petitions at that time, because when we faced the political crisis in our country in 2006, there were a lot of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and activists stayed in the camp. So we worked with the civil society to continue monitoring the petitions. We shared information that we received from the IDPs with the government to attend to the needs for the IDPs. Now, we also receive support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the New Zealand Aid Program. We use the support to strengthen our regional offices.
How is the human rights situation in Timor Leste? What are the common human rights complaints that the PDHJ receives?
We continue to receive complaints from the public related to human rights abuses or related to maladministration. Mostly the complaints are related to abuses of power practiced by the enforcement officials such as our police. Sometimes, we also receive complaints about public servants, especially teachers. Sometimes, some of the teachers use force to beat the children. The parents send complaint letters to us. We also have land rights issues, such as forced evictions.
We do not, however, face much of an issue in term of the independence of the institution. But sometimes we do receive criticism from our colleagues from civil society. However, when we prepared our first Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in 2011, PDHJ and civil society prepared one report together under the section for National Institution.
Are there many cases of forced eviction?
Yes, [there is] still a high number and this especially happens in Oecusse. Last year, there was a big project in Oecusse. The authorities there took the land to use for the development, and there is no compensation. The community came to us, and filed complains to us. We sent our monitoring team to conduct monitoring. After that, we sent our report to the government, to the parliament. Now, the implementation of our recommendation is still ongoing.
Power of investigation is always a contentious issue for NHRIs. What is the situation like for the PDHJ?
Our tasks related to investigations are confidential. When we decide to open a case for investigation, our investigators have the duty to keep confidential [anything] related to these cases. After the investigation, based on our mandate, we send our report and recommendation to related government agencies that committed the human rights violations. After the investigation, we send our recommendations and reports for implementation.
How is the relationship between PDHJ and the Timor Leste government?
Before this, we had a department that we called the "Department for Follow-Up Recommendation." Now, we have the Official for Follow-Up Recommendation. As provided in our Statute, each government agency that receives our recommendations or reports, they have 60 days to implement the recommendations. After 60 days, they have to report back to us; such as what kind of steps they have taken to implement our recommendations. In the first month (30 days), we first send reminder letter before follow-up by a meeting. After the first meeting, we will send another reminder letter a week before the due date. And, after 60 days, if there's no response, then the final report will be sent to the Parliament. Every June, the PDHJ will need to present an annual report to the Parliament. So far, the government agencies have been responsive.
How is the PDHJ's relationship with civil society and the local NGOs? Are there any challenges?
Very good. Sometimes they criticize us as well. Very often, it is related to the human rights issues. Civil society and the NGOs want the PDHJ to act more. I can understand them, because my background is also from civil society. But, very often I try to explain that you have to make a difference or distinction between the modus operandi of civil society and the PDHJ. As a state institution, I want to make sure each recommendation we send to the state institutions will be followed up and not be put under the table.
[Khoo Ying Hooi (PhD) is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of International and Strategic Studies, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Malaya, Malaysia. This interview is part of the research project supported by the SHAPE-SEA Programme funded by SIDA. She would like to thank Dr. Silverio Pinto Baptista who willingly shared information and insights for this interview.]