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On May 20, 2022, newly elected President José Ramos-Horta addressed the Parliament of Timor-Leste.

The President addressed the challenges of building a pluralistic democracy after decades of violence under the occupation. The Constitution, he says, lays the foundation for the evolving State, and for peace in the nation.

The Constitution of Timor-Leste, he pointed out, was drafted by the Constituent Assembly, which was elected on August 30, 2001. The assembly was composed of 88 deputies. The Constitution was approved on March 22, 2002.  ITs contents make clear, the President said, the enormous concern of the deputies that they leave a document that above all guarantees the obligation of the State and of all to respect and guarantee human rights, the fundamental rights or citizens, and at the same time guarantees the principle of the separation of powers, to establish the essential rules of a pluralist democracy and lead to the construction of a fair and prosperous country.

The Constitution of Timor-Leste came into force on the 20th of May, 2002. Today, he said, the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Constitution calls for reflection on the actualities of the current moment, taking into account the natural evolution that has occurred over these 20 years, and the challenges that await.

The Constitution, he said, has not only guaranteed the separation of powers in the State, but ensured the existence today of an “inclusive and participatory democracy that is transparent and responsible.” It lays out, he said, the system that attributes, through the vote of citizens for the President of the Republic and Parliament, inherent direct legitimacy to the functions they perform, those they were elected by the people to perform, limiting the action by the State, and providing the necessary control mechanisms to avoid the abuse of power.

The National Parliament, he said, is a pillar of the nation’s democracy and of the values enshrined in the nation’s laws. The protection of the values enshrined in the text of the Constitution, he said, must be a national goal that the institutions of government work together to achieve.

Article 23 of the Constitution (Interpretation of fundamental rights), he pointed out, protects the values enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), establishing that the protection of fundamental rights in Timor-Leste is not limited to those specifically enshrined in the Constitution, but that it provides functional protection to all other fundamental rights of the UDHR.

Ramos-Horta spoke of the international treaties that Timor-Leste has joined, including the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The Timor-Leste Constitution strengthens and expands the obligation of the state and ensures the full exercise of the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights provided for in the covenants.

The ratification of the International Convention for the Protection of People Against Enforced Disappearances was, he said, a fundamental step in the fight against human trafficking. There was, however, a lack of specific legislation to enable the State and its institutions to act as they wished. A framework needed to be established that would provide the human and financial resources for an effective fight against organized human trafficking, in accordance with the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime.

The advances in Timor-Leste’s social and political advances have resulted in an index of democracy rating of seventh in Asia and Oceania released by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Leadership, he said, must largely be related to the fundamental rights. It at times becomes necessary to update the normative framework for the protection and development of those rights, in line with the international conventions to which Timor-Leste has subscribed. He cited a bill drafted by the government in 2020, through the Ministry of Justice, that intended to criminalize defamation or slurs. There were already civil mechanisms in place for repairing damages to honor and life, safeguarding the right to privacy. The new government action called into question the difficult balance between the right to freedom and information, already provided for in Article 40 of the constitution (Freedom of speech and information), and the right to privacy is provided for in article 36 (Right to honour and privacy). All are fundamental rights. If it had been approved, he said, the bill would have provided for the application of completely disproportionate penalties in light of fundamental rights, and would have been in clear violation of the right of article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the requirements listed in article 19 of the UN International Convention on Civil and Political Rights.

Speaking on women’s empowerment, the President cited 2019 statistics from the department of Women’s Empowerment in the office of the Secretary of State for Equality and Inclusion. In the last Parliamentary elections in 2018, he said, 25 women were elected, a 38% increase over the 35% in the previous legislature and confirming a growth trend. Female participation in the elections was 48.6%, higher than the 2007/2017 elections. However, women executives in government was still low, only between 16 and 21 percent, while in the villages, of 441 Sucos (villages) only 21 have a female Chefe de Suco (Village Chief).  Even so, he said, if we compare these numbers with the 2009 numbers, there is a 100% increase in the number of women elected, and a 650% increase in women candidates — 42 in 2009 to 319 in 2016.

The President said that according to the Economic and Social Council of the UN (ECOSOC) Timor-Leste is still included in the list of underdeveloped countries and is characterized as the poorest in the Asia region despite data from the World Bank report on Timor-Leste Poverty and Equity Brief published in April 2019 showing significant progress in Timor-Leste, reducing the poverty rate from 50.4% in 2007 to 41.8% in 2014.

As of 2015 the populations’ accessibility rate of drinking water was 72% in the urban populations and 63% among the rural populations. These figures, he said, show that the country “still has a long way to go.”

According to government data from 2013 to 202 malnutrition fell slightly from 50.2% to 47.1%. “This scourge,” he said, “still affects almost half of children under the age of 5.”

The President said that results of the 2020 government-led survey on nutritional status of risk factors for malnutrition in children and women “demonstrate a clear failure of the State with regard to compliance with its constitutional obligations, in particular child protection,” citing Articles 18 (Child Protection), 56 (Social Security and Assistance), 57 (Health), and 59 (Education and Culture) of the Constitution. The approval by the National Parliament of the law for protection of children and young people in danger, he said, and the action plans to combat poverty and unemployment, particularly among young people, are vital and must be a priority.

It must be clear for all those involved or responsible in this matter what procedures to adopt that best guarantee protection of the child. The range of social and protection services provided by third parties, he said, must respect the guidelines.

Addressing gender-based violence, the President stated that per data from the Voluntary National Review put forward by the government and violence committee of the sustainable development goals, about 35% of the total female population faces sexual and physical abuse. The report recommends approval of the Domestic Life Act and the action plan on gender-based violence to combat domestic violence.

The State, he said, must give priority to its commitment to improving access to drinking water and basic sanitation in the schools built, building toilets for the boys and girls. The current numbers on this are alarming. According to data from UNICEF, 66% of schools in Timor-Leste do not have functioning sanitation facilities and 30% do not have access to clean water.

Addressing access to justice, he said that access to formal justice remains a major challenge, especially in rural areas, where for cultural reasons the population prefers to use the mechanisms reserved for traditional justice, even though these do not follow the constitutional standards of defense.

Regarding the disabled, the President said, “it is with some embarrassment that I say that Timor-Leste has still not ratified the International Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities.” According to the 2015 Census, people with disabilities constitute 3.2% of the population. “In numbers,” he said, “we are talking about 38,118 people.” Article 21 of the Constitution (Disabled Citizens), he pointed out, attributes to the State the obligation not to discriminate, to give equal treatment to people with disabilities, and to promote the protection of these citizens.

Speaking of the LGBT community in Timor-Leste, the President noted that “several reports indicate that violence and discrimination against the LGBT community continues to happen in Timor-Leste. Of 128 people interviewed in Timor-Leste who identify as gay or transgender, 25% report having faced physical aggression, and 35% verbal abuse. 31% have been refused medical services and 25% medical assistance.

In conclusion, President Ramos-Horta stated, “It is clear that after 20 years of validity of our Constitution, Timor-Leste has already come a long way toward reconciliation of our young, vibrant, principle-based democratic principles and rule of law. We don’t think that everything is done. Our country faces demanding challenges.” But the rest, he said, demands that the protection of fundamental rights be a central factor for development. In this way it will be possible to establish true rule of law, and will enable effective protection and promotion of the rights and fundamental liberties and guarantees of every citizen. Only with these objectives clearly agreed to in the centers of power can we achieve progress and development. And we all want that.

The President thanked his distinguished guests.