Following Traumatic Conflict:  Confronting the Truth, Fostering Reconciliation.

Aniceto Guterres Lopes, Chair East Timor Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation.

(Commissao de acolhimento, Verdade e reconciliacao de Timor Leste, or CAVR.)

Today I stand before you as a very happy man. It seems almost as if it must be a dream to be in this position, feeling light, and hopeful and positive.  Although I am still a relatively young man, mixed in my heart with today’s elation are the dark memories of a very different time, when I seriously wondered whether God had made a mistake, that he had forgotten me and my people.  That was a time when the suffering which surrounded me was so great that I felt violated and degraded as a person and as an East Timorese. When you are constantly and consistently treated as inferior it is difficult not to, at some point, wonder if any notion of equality will ever be possible.  And yet through all of that time something kept me moving forward, a belief that there was, at the end of the day, some justice in this world, and because of this one day things would get better. The fact that I am here today is evidence that this is, thankfully, correct.

My elation today is due to three incredible factors:

First is to receive the honor of the Ramon Magsasay Award, in the company of so many of the great leaders of Asia. I feel humbled to be in their company. 

Second is the honor to lead the first truth and reconciliation commission in Asia, the CAVR. This position also carries the weight of the hopes of the people of Timor-Leste that the work of the Commission will help them to make the emotional and physical transition from our dark past to a new future.

The third major reason for my joyful feelings today are that I, together with my wife and children, am alive today, in a free EastTimor, ready to climb the massive mountain of nation-building which lies ahead.  However the joy of this feeling is also mixed, as the memories of those who did not survive also linger in my mind.

My work and that of the CAVR is centrally involved in this transition, grappling with the large issues of truth, justice and reconciliation. How do we deal with our past? Is it better to forget or to remember? Is the truth an essential part of healing? How can we achieve justice for tens of thousands of serious violations and a struggling new justice system with very few resources? Is justice essential for reconciliation? Are the two mutually exclusive or interrelated? What do these terms mean anyway, not just the overused words but in a real practical sense? How can we take realistic concrete steps to achieve them? How can we help victims and perpetrators to come together to prevent the recurrence of violence?

Working in the field of reconciliation after massive violence involves struggling to find a way through a fog of anger, hate, blood, sadness and tears. Every day we must work our canvas in shades of grey. Painting in black and white in this context is for dreamers only.  And we must find a way forward from this grey into the light.

 My current role in the Commission is an extension of my personal experience and belief that human rights and justice are the most effective tools for achieving a peaceful and prosperous reality for all citizens.

These beliefs grew in a context where the rule of law did not apply, where there was no justice, in a situation of military occupation and colonial oppression. I can remember clearly a moment in my life when I decided that I must be dedicated to fighting for change and against oppression:

I was a teenager, on my way home from classes at my local high school. In front of the Indonesian local military headquarters not far from my house three Timorese men were tied up, to each other and to a post.  The three men had been placed in a pool of mud and filth and were completely naked, in a terrible condition, watched and stared at by passers by. This sight shocked me to the core of my being. Looking at them cut me inside like a knife, I knew that somehow I was actually connected to them and their suffering made me suffer also. Unless I worked to alleviate their suffering I too would continue to feel this pain.

After high school I studied law and then in 1996 established the first human rights and legal aid organization in East Timor, called Yayasan Hak, or "the Rights Foundation."  Up until this time it had not been possible to openly do this kind of work.  Trials of political prisoners were conducted in secret, not at all, or without respect to the fundamental principles of fair trial. People were not aware of the fact that they possessed rights as human beings which could not be taken from them by any oppressive regime. Those of us who did this work were often threatened, beaten, in some cases worse. We were young and relatively inexperienced but we learned some important lessons, which I would like to share with you.

First of all I learned the importance of making an intervention in cases of injustice. For many years the situation in East Timor had been like a closed book.  The majority of the international community did not choose to look inside and intervene to try to stop what was happening. Only a relatively small number of courageous and committed friends throughour the world kept our candle burning, often at great personal cost. For this they have our undying gratitude. Without their repeated interventions on our behalf we may never have been able to climb out of the darkness of oppression and terror.

Within East Timor interventions were always risky.  Demonstrations, like that which drew the world’s attention after the massacre at the Santa Cruz cemetry, often resulted in torture and killings of those involved. And yet, we knew that we had to continue to intervene to some degree, to make some mark, not to allow events and major violations to pass as if nothing had happened.

I also learned that even in a situation in which there was very little justice and no respect for the rule of law, the tools of justice, human rights and legal instruments can be used very effectively. We discovered that, although our actions were risky, by using existing laws and legal mechanisms we were able to achieve things, which were not possible by political action, although of course both were necessary.

One of our major successes working as a human rights ngo was to help the population to become empowered by recognizing their legal and human rights. I believe that the knowledge and realization that these rights were recognized all over the world gave the people some additional strength in struggling against oppression.

I remember one of the first trials in which I appeared in Dili, as a young inexperienced lawyer.  My client had been badly tortured and forced to sign a confession. He was on trial and the courtroom was full of military and police, all armed, even though it was forbidden to bring guns into the courtroom. I made an application to the judge that the confession was not acceptable as it had been gained through threat and actual violence, and the police officer who was involved, who was in the court, should be investigated for this torture. There was much commotion in the courtroom as this type of allegation had until this time, never been made.  Several police officers held their rifles pointed in my general direction and threateningly cocked their weapons.

The case was adjourned, and when I walked outside police and military told me that I would be killed. I was naturally terrified at all of this.  However, something else was there, a surprise, and a revelation. I realized that the reason why I was being threatened was because they had felt threatened. Their tools were guns and mine were tattered law books, and yet there was something real in the challenge the law and human rights instruments posed to them, even in that very unequal situation.

From these past experiences it has become clear to me that the objective in creating a more just society is always the same, and this has not altered before our transition, during and now as an independent country.  The objective is to establish human rights and the rule of law, which applies equally to all people.  Only if this is achieved can peace and prosperity follow. However these terms are used so frequently these days that they are in risk of losing their meaning.  The words are perhaps even too easy to use.  The real challenge is to find tools which can be used practically to help us to approach the goal.

The Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor, or CAVR, is one of these tools. It is part of the attempt to address the massive national and personal trauma between 1974 and 1999 in which the social fabric of our culture was torn.

The goals of the CAVR include investigating and reporting the truth of the human rights abuses during this period; promoting reconciliation between affected parties ;

restoration of the dignity of victims of human rights violations; and making recommendations to the government based on findings.

 The Commission has around 250 Timorese staff who work in teams in every sub-district of the country. These teams assisted by national staff are involved in a number of programs:

Under this program perpetrators of harmful past actions related to the political conflict can choose to make a full admission, apologize and attend a community hearing under the direction of a panel of local leaders, including a CAVR Regional Commissioner.  After the victims, community and perpetrators have an opportunity to speak, an agreement is reached whereby the perpetrator is required to undertake various work, compensation or other actions in order to be re-accepted by the community.  Perpetrators of serious past offences, such as murder, rape or torture, are not eligible to participate in the process. Such cases are dealt with by the Serious Crimes court in Dili.

After agreement has been reached by the panel, perpetrators and victims, the District Court will register its terms. When the relevant acts of reconciliation have been performed, the perpetrator will no longer hold any criminal or civil liability for the actions he has admitted to.

I believe that a major reason for the success of the Community Reconciliation Procedures is the fact that they include and rely on both traditonal and formal procedures.  The spiritual and cultural practices of particular regions can be used during hearings and negotiations, give additional meaning and force to the process. This also gives the relevant communities a larger sense of ownership and participation.

People often ask about the relationship between truth, justice and reconciliation.  Is truth necessary? Can you have reconciliation without justice? Our experience so far with the Commission’s work has provided some measure of answer to these questions.

Truth is an integral part of reconciliation and justice. Victims say that knowing the truth, especially if it is admitted by the perpetrator, provides some justice for them, and opens up the possibilities of acceptance and reconciliation. Many of them also say that the official recognition and recording of their experiences is a major contribution to healing. Without truth this progression remains blocked.

It is also our experience that reconciliation is extremely difficult to achieve without at least some level of justice.  In the Community Reconciliation Procedures many victims say that the admission of the truth,  apology and acts of reparation or community service, provide an acceptable measure of justice for them. However, this is dependent on the fact that the perpetrators have not committed crimes such as murder, rape or torture.  It is clear from our work that the fact that those most responsible for the massive human rights violations in East Timor remain at large, and have not been brought to justice, remains a serious hindrance to national reconciliation.

Impunity for those most responsible for these past violations has a particular importance for East Timor. We are an infant nation, trying to establish common values for our citizens.  The most important of these values is a sense of justice and belief in the rule of law.  Impunity for those most responsible for past major violations creates major obstacles to citizens believing in and making day to day choices modeled around justice and the rule of law.

In this respect, we must learn from our past not only that the rights of each person are equal and must be protected, but that the practical tools for this protection must be available to every individual. Once again I am reminded of my own first principles- human rights, the rule of law and justice are only empty words if we do not establish the practical mechanisms, and give ordinary individuals the tools and access to defend themselves against abuses.  History tells us that if we do not do this, they will find other, sharper tools, to defend themselves.

In closing, I wish to pay a tribute to the thousands of East Timorese who lost their lives in the stuggle for our freedom. They are an inspiration to us. They walk with us every day, in our new work of nation-building. These victims and heroes teach us that we must respect and remember the horrors of our past, so that we can leave them behind, and ensure that they are never be repeated in the future.

  Thank you once again to the President and Trustees of the Ramon Magsasay Foundation for the faith they have placed in me, and to all of you here today.