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Jose Ramos Horta: making human rights relevant

Jose Ramos Horta: making human rights relevant

When the president of the world’s youngest democracy tells you that he gets out onto the streets and cleans up plastic waste in his shorts and runners every Friday, you know he’s…

When the president of the world’s youngest democracy tells you that he gets out onto the streets and cleans up plastic waste in his shorts and runners every Friday, you know he’s serious about putting words into action.

Speaking last week, Dr Jose Ramos-Horta, president of Timor-Leste, gave a public address to mark the Diplomacy Training Project’s 20th anniversary at the University of NSW’s Faculty of Law.

Introducing Dr Ramos-Horta, Chancellor of UNSW David Gonski reminded the audience that, “as lawyers, the protection of human rights and the peaceful resolution of disputes should be at the forefront of our minds”.

He said the UNSW law school should be engaged not only with its immediate community but with the entire region, and that its goal should be to teach the practical application of legal knowledge. Gonski congratulated Dr Ramos-Horta on helping to found the Diplomacy Training Program 20 years ago.

The program has trained hundreds of human rights advocates in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as Indigenous Australians. As Oxfam Australia’s executive director Andrew Hewett said, the program “ensures that some of the arcane language of international human rights law is made real and relevant”.

Dr Ramos-Horta thanked the university for welcoming his idea for the program 20 years ago. “I had spent many years in New York and in Geneva, and had also attended courses at the International Institute of Human Rights in Strasbourg, and every course that was offered in the US, in trying to understand the United Nations system and learn about human rights charters and conventions.

“I realised that beyond understanding what is prescribed in the charters or in the conventions, beyond what we individually believe, is the question of how you can be an effective advocate for human rights.”

To make it work, noted Dr Ramos- Horta, we must turn to modern means of communication. Following World War 2, even as the international community had just come out of the holocaust, the restraints of physical distance and poor communications made awareness about human rights difficult. But Dr Ramos-Horta believes that 60 years later there is still hardly any debate about the universality of human rights.

“Back then the world was still a very large place, in the sense that it was difficult to mobilise public opinion to effect change,” he said. “Then came the era of CNN, and then, very fast over the next 20 years, the development of modern tools of communication, particularly the internet.”

Many groups have used these tools to mobilise hundreds of thousands of people, he said.

“You just have to look at the mobilisation of people on the eve of a World Bank, or an IMF meeting, or a Davos World Economic Forum. And how are they able to do that? It’s through the internet, by SMS.”

Dr Ramos-Horta said that the issue facing the Diplomacy Training Program at its inception was how to translate what was known about the UN and its instruments to affect the policies of “the powers that be”.

“You have to do it by understanding media – understanding how you can use media to promote human rights, how to use media to mobilise support in order to effect

policy changes,” he said.

When the Diplomacy Training Program was developed, said Dr Ramos-Horta, it was never going to be just an academic, theoretical program. “It was always going to provide those who participate in it with a basic understanding of lobbying techniques, of negotiations – how to promote change through modern techniques of communication," he said.

“And today we have the gift from those who concocted all these extraordinary means of modern communication, which make it far more difficult for regimes anywhere in the world to commit barbarities and get away with it”.

- Alison Hartman

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Jose Ramos Horta: making human rights relevant
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