Peacebuilders Highlight Gains and Challenges in Timor-Leste

The Peacebuilding Commission hosted a meeting with the Government of Timor-Leste on the work of peace in the 20-year-old state.

Maria Fatimah Sara Dos Reis Afonso, a conflict prevention and gender equality advocate, grew up in Bobonaro, a municipality in the western part of Timor-Leste. The region is known for its mountains and hot springs; its northern coast dips into the Savu Sea. Remembering her childhood, Sara describes her large family: she was one of eight siblings. Three of her siblings died, along with her father, during the military intervention of the armed forces of Indonesia and subsequent occupation of her country. Of her family today, she says, simply, that there are “five people left.”

What is now the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste was a Portuguese colony until 1975. At the time, the Security Council passed a resolution “deploring the intervention of the armed forces of lndonesia in East Timor” and “recognizing the right of the people to self-determination and independence.” In 1999 its people voted in a referendum for independence, and in 2002, Timor-Leste became a UN Member State.

Today, Dos Reis Afonso works at Belun, a conflict prevention non-profit organization in Dili that supports implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, in partnership with the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Belun works with these Programmes and Agencies on the UN’s Spotlight Initiative on the elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls, as well as issues such as access to justice, inclusive youth election participation, and human trafficking.

Dos Reis Afonso notes that while Timor-Leste has made great strides in terms of gender equality — it ratified the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and its constitution contains two articles on equal rights for women — it still has work to do. “A strong patriarchal system brings inequity, and society will normalize the creation of discrimination, and control opportunities and benefits,” she observed.

The obstacles to gender equality in Timor-Leste are manifold, she said, and range from women’s limited access to land or property, including through inheritance, to sexual and gender-based violence. Belun is currently working on an initiative with the Government to develop recommendations for the implementation of a domestic violence law. Dos Reis Afonso also underlined the need to ensure that existing laws, such as those concerning land ownership and domestic violence, are implemented and enforced at all levels of society.

The Peacebuilding Commission and Timor-Leste

The Peacebuilding Commission held its first-ever meeting on Timor-Leste at UN Headquarters in New York in September, with the participation of President Jose Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão. Joining the meeting via video-link from Dili, Dos Reis Afonso spoke about her experiences of peacebuilding in Timor-Leste, as well as the work of her organization on gender equality. She noted the progress made in Timor-Leste with regard to women’s participation in political life, highlighting an increase in the number of female village and hamlet chiefs and leaders.

During the meeting, Commission members commended the progress made by Timor-Leste by its nationally owned and led process since the drawdown of the UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT) in 2012. They highlighted gains in the consolidation of peace and stability, the promotion of social cohesion, and the strengthening of its institutions. Members also recognized the challenges still facing Timor-Leste, such as the need to reduce poverty and inequality and to empower its women and youth.

In her remarks, the Assistant Secretary-General for Peacebuilding Support, Elizabeth Spehar, highlighted the important role of the Peacebuilding Commission with regard to its convening role as a platform for inclusive dialogue and national reconciliation efforts, bringing the views of the civil society together alongside perspectives from government. She also noted the role of the Peacebuilding Commission as a platform for peer-to-peer learning and exchange of good practices, and encouraged the Commission to strengthen this role.

Also joining the meeting via videolink was civil society representative Nélson Belo. Belo is the founder of Fundasaun Mahein, which examines the security sector in Timor-Leste, undertaking research and advocacy on issues such as police reform, defense policy, border management, and election processes. Fundasaun Mahein is currently examining the security situation with regard to the rise in popularity of martial arts groups, taking the form of gangs, throughout the country, some of which have been — rightly or wrongly — associated with increasing reports of public disorder, said Belo.

Belo was born in Baucau in 1970. “I grew up during the Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste and became a pro-independence student activist,” he said. He went on to become a human rights spokesperson for the East Timor Student Solidarity Council at the University of East Timor. In 1999, after the independence referendum, he was an interpreter for the head of the International Force in Timor-Leste. On his peacebuilding work, Belo said that “I believe that everyone has a right to enjoy freely their life and this is only possible with peace. Peace is the pre-condition for a better life for those of us who fought for independence.”

Belo stressed the importance of supporting civil society organizations to engage with similar organizations in conflict-affected countries, especially those of Group of Seven Plus (g7+) member countries, and to facilitate south-south civil society collaboration. This requires the willingness to learn from these organizations and offer them appropriate financial and non-financial support to strengthen their capacity to undertake advocacy, he emphasized. He also underscored the importance of acting flexibly and building partnerships with small civil society organizations so that these organizations can flourish, grow and respond to local issues in locally relevant ways. Timorese civil society leaders are able to reach out to different sectors of Timorese society in a way that the United Nations entities cannot, Belo noted.

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The online magazine of the United Nations Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs