Dili Days: Human Rights in Timor-Leste

Courtney Yachanin. Courtney is a 2L at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at ASU. She is on the boards of the International Law Society and Environmental Law Society. She plans to practice public international law upon graduation. Courtney interned at the Office of the Provedor for Human Rights and Justice in Dili, Timor-Leste, during the summer of 2019. 

This summer in Timor-Leste, I worked for the Provedoria dos Dieretos Humanos e Justiça (PDHJ), Timor-Leste’s national human rights institution (NHRI).  NHRIs are independent agencies that monitor their government’s institutions to make sure they are complying with national and international human rights legislation.  I mostly worked on legal research, but I also helped with English language skills and was also the tallest member of their women’s basketball team in the civil service league.  Fortunately, the last week of my internship ended up coinciding with the Second Technical Working Group (TWG) Meeting of the South East Asia National Human Rights Institution Forum (SEANF), which was being held in Timor-Leste.  SEANF consists of NHRIs from six different South East Asian countries: Komisi Nasional Hak Asasi Manusia (Komnas HAM) of Indonesia; Suruhanjaya Hak Asasi Manusia (SUHAKAM) of Malaysia; Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC); Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines (CHRP); National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRCT); and, Provedoria dos Direitos Humanos e Justiça (PDHJ) of Timor-Leste. 

SEANF had chosen rights of persons with disabilities as one of the main focal points for this year’s meetings.  For the meeting I was to attend, I researched, wrote, and presented the draft of SEANF’s baseline paper on the rights of persons with disabilities.  My goal was for this paper to serve as a guide for the SEANF countries, to see what the other member countries were doing as an example for possible policies and programs to implement in their own country.  I also included NHRI-specific recommendations to help promote and protect the rights of persons with disabilities that could be implemented by each of the member NHRIs.  All the delegates were impressed with my paper and presentation, and PDHJ has engaged me as a consultant to finish the paper.  They even invited me back to the SEANF annual meeting in October, but unfortunately, I will be unable to attend because it would require me to miss too many classes.

I based the bulk of the paper on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).  All the SEANF countries, except for Timor-Leste, have ratified the CRPD.  In the course of my research, I tried to find out why Timor-Leste had yet to ratify, as it has ratified the majority of UN conventions.  I found nothing concrete, but the political timeline of Timor leads me to believe that it was mostly a kind of forced prioritization.  A lot has happened in Timor-Leste in a very short amount of time, and they lack the capacity to take care of everything at once.  Timor-Leste became a country in 2002, and then ratified all existing UN human rights conventions in 2003 and 2004, but it has yet to ratify anything that came about after, including the CRPD which was established in 2006.  Also, members of PDHJ with whom I spoke seemed to think the CRPD required a certain level of accessibility to have been implemented prior to ratification, which I quickly dispelled.  The CRPD makes concessions for those member parties with limited resources and does not require them to make unreasonable or extravagant changes in order to be in compliance.

However, Timor-Leste seems likely to ratify the CRPD sooner rather than later.  In June, I attended an all-day seminar on the state of rights of persons with disabilities in Timor.  The event was hosted by the Ministry of Social Solidarity (which is the focal organization for enforcing rights of persons with disabilities), the National Parliament, OxFam, the UN, and the Asosiasaun Defisiensia Timor-Leste (ADTL; the Timor-Leste Disability Association).  Apparently, before this seminar, the National Parliament had shown very little interest in ratifying the CRPD.  Multiple members of Parliament, including its president, spoke at the seminar, all reiterating their desire to ratify soon.  It is unclear how soon, but at least they are actively aware of the need to address the rights of persons with disabilities, which is one of the major goals of the CRPD.

Overall, I had a very rewarding summer in Timor-Leste with PDHJ.  I learned a lot about the struggles faced by a developing country, but I also got to experience many of the benefits of living in a country that has so much opportunity and potential for growth.  Some of my favorite experiences were traveling around to remote areas on dirt roads (which are almost all the roads outside of Dili) and diving and snorkeling on some of the most biodiverse reefs in the world, not yet marred by over-development or unsustainable tourism.  I met a lot of interesting and passionate people during my two months there: colleagues at PDHJ, delegates from SEANF countries, and many people working and volunteering in other capacities in Timor.  I very much look forward to the time when I can return to Timor and would highly recommend spending a summer interning there to any interested ASU Law students.

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