Timor-Leste, formerly East Timor, is a small island nation in Southeast Asia. After 400 years as a Portuguese colony, in 1975 it was invaded by Indonesia. For 24 years the nation suffered one of the most brutal occupations of the 20th century; approximately one third of its population perished under occupation.
José Ramos-Horta, a 25 year old Timorese journalist, arrived at JFK airport in New York as Indonesian warships were approaching his homeland. Having never seen snow or a skyscraper, he made his way to the UN where he addressed the UN Security Council on the horrific events taking place in his country.
He was made a UN Special Representative for the Timorese independence movement. The youngest UN diplomat in history, he was virtually a lone voice for his people for 24 years while they suffered occupation and atrocities. He organized human rights networks, kept his country in the media, and tirelessly kept the issue on the UN floor.
In 1996 Ramos-Horta and Timorese Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for their work toward a just and peaceful solution to the conflict in East Timor.”
Ramos-Horta’s efforts bore fruit in 1999, when under the aegis of the UN Secretary General, Indonesia and Portugal agreed to hold a Popular Consultation of the East Timorese People,” a referendum allowing the Timorese people to vote to remain a part of Indonesia, or become an independent nation. 78.5% voted for independence.
When the country erupted in violence, Ramos-Horta was integral in rallying the international community to support a UN Peacekeeping Force to stop the violence and begin repairing the devastated country.
In 1999 Ramos-Horta returned from exile to help administer the new nation, first as Foreign Minister and Senior Minister of the Cabinet, then Prime Minister, and in 2008, as President of the world’s youngest democracy.
When Timor-Leste erupted in civil conflict in 2006, Ramos-Horta instituted peace building and conflict resolution programs that began to restore peace to the nation. In 2008 he narrowly survived an assassination attempt, an event that brought much of the Timorese population to the streets demanding peace. His arrival home from the hospital marked a coalescing of the country around its leadership, and the end of civil conflict in Timor-Leste.
After his first Presidency Ramos-Horta served in a global peace building capacity over many years; his work included leading a number of high-level missions for the UN Secretary General.
In May, 2022, he was again elected President and is currently serving his second Presidential term, a founding father of the nation he has dedicated his life to.