Affirming that there could be no democracy without the rule of law, the top United Nations envoy to Timor-Leste today called for a common strategic vision to overcome challenges to the fledgling nation’s justice sector.
“National ownership and leadership as well as coordination between the different institutions remain pivotal to improving access to justice in a sustainable manner,” Atul Khare, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Special Representative, told a workshop hosted by the Ministry of Justice in the country’s capital, Dili.
Mr. Khare, who also heads the UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT), said that in its seven years of independence, Timor-Leste has demonstrated its commitment to justice, rule of law and democracy, despite two serious crises in that time.
In 2006, violent clashes caused massive displacement and in 2008, President José Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão were targeted in two separate attacks.
However, great progress had been made, he said, noting that when he first arrived in 2002, judicial institutions were dysfunctional due to a lack of trained judges, prosecutors and public defenders.
Now, Timorese justice personnel are increasingly taking on line functions as they receive training, he said, adding that access to justice has been improved with districts courts functioning outside Dili.
The prison service has improved and the country has also ratified all major international human rights instruments and recently adopted important legislation, such as the criminal code, which is broadly in line with international standards, he said.
He noted that the UN family in Timor-Leste has been continuously supporting the authorities in their efforts by providing technical advice and mentoring with the strong support of bilateral partners.
“Strengthening the institutions and building capacities in the justice sector is a key element of UNMIT’s mandate,” he said.
Challenges include the completion of investigations of crimes against humanity and other serious crimes committed during the violence before independence and in 2006, he said.
In addition, he said that pending key legislation, such as the Civil Code, the law on Domestic Violence and a Juvenile Justice Law must be adopted swiftly and implemented efficiently.
There is also a need for additional human rights education and raising legal awareness, with particular emphasis on women’s rights and gender based violence, he maintained.
Those challenges seem daunting, he acknowledged, but the fact that the Ministry of Justice is encouraging a common vision for the next ten years should be seen as a major step forward.
“This might appear to be very ambitious, but the most important step has already been taken,” he said.