José Ramos-Horta, the United Nations special envoy for Guinea-Bissau in West Africa since January 2013 and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, is leaving his post, he confirmed. Ramos-Horta, 64, will become chairman and chief executive of UBrainTV, an Internet news service based in Tokyo. He has been an adviser to UBrainTV for more than a year.
Ramos-Horta, who also leads the UN’s peace-building office in Bissau, the Guinea-Bissau capital, also acknowledged that he was a candidate to replace Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights. Pillay, a former South African judge, is leaving Aug. 31 after serving two terms in the post, though her second one had been extended for only two years rather than a full four years. The United States has not been comfortable with Pillay’s positions on Israeli and Palestinian problems.
Many other names are rumored as potential candidates to fill the Pillay job, though the UN will not comment on the process, keeping it predictably secretive. People who work in prominent human-rights circles said they heard such names as Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein, Jordan’s ambassador to the UN; Frank La Rue, a UN rapporteur on freedom of expression and opinion from Guatemala; and Jorge Castañeda, the Mexican politician and writer. Kyung-wha Kang, a South Korean and second in command of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), was also mentioned.
Another high-placed source suggested that two Thais were candidates: Vitit Muntarbhorn, who has been a UN rapporteur for two decades, including a stint on child pornography and child prostitution as well as on North Korea; and Surin Pitsuwan, a former foreign minister and more recently the secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). Pitsuwan is a Muslim from southern Thailand and a Harvard graduate who was a Congressional fellow in Washington for Rep. Geraldine Ferraro (Democrat of New York) from 1983 to 1984.
Guinea-Bissau, which was a Portuguese colony until 1974, is a sliver of a country of less than two million people on the Atlantic coast. It is blessed with exotic fishery but cursed with drug smugglers and corruption and has endured a string of military coups and economic tailspins. It has been called a narco state by the media, as its pliable government and coastal archipelago make it an ideal transport point for the cocaine trade from South America to Europe.
The country accomplished a presidential election in mid-April. To the relief of UN officials and international aid donors, the election occurred without a military hitch, which had been a serious possibility, given that a coup took place two years ago right before a presidential run-off vote, putting the country at a virtual standstill. For this month’s election winners, a run-off is scheduled on May 18, presenting another big hurdle for Guinea-Bissau.
Ramos-Horta has a colorful past as a leader of the opposition to Indonesia’s seizure of East Timor, half of an island near the eastern edge of the Indonesian archipelago, after it was abandoned by Portugal in 1975 and claimed by the Suharto government in Jakarta, prompting an armed rebellion. In 1996 Ramos-Horta, who became the international diplomatic face of the revolution, and Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, the territory’s spiritual leader, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “their work towards a just and peaceful solution to the conflict in Timor-Leste.”
The new country won its independence in a UN-sponsored referendum in 1999, after Suharto was forced from office, in which nearly three-quarters of the population voted against Indonesian rule.
During the long struggle for independence, Ramos-Horta addressed the United Nations Security Council, which adopted a unanimous resolution demanding that Indonesia withdraw its forces from Timor-Leste. From 1975 to 1999, he was the representative at the UN for Fretilin, the leading armed rebel group. Later, he was a prime minister of Timor-Leste and then president, sharing power with José Alexandre Gusmão, always known by his battle name, Xanana, who had been the guerrilla commander of Fretilin.
Ramos-Horta was assigned the UN special envoy job in Guinea-Bissau because, among other qualifications, he speaks Portuguese, the country’s official language, as well as French and English. French is spoken throughout West Africa and English is important for dealing with the UN and with Asean.
In his new job with UBrain TV, Ramos-Horta will be based in Timor-Leste and in Tokyo, he said in an email to PassBlue. He will have a weekly program called “Ramos-Horta on the World” on such topics as international affairs, the environment and human rights. In addition, he will serve on Timor-Leste’s State Council, an advisory body to the country’s president. He said he would also work on the Asian Peace and Reconciliation Council, which he co-founded and offers second-track diplomacy and related services.
As for Guinea-Bissau, Ramos-Horta said that the presidential election on April 13 drew more than 80 percent of the country’s registered voters. “The whole campaign period of mass rallies and debates were conducted in exemplary manner,” he added.
The situation in the nation, he said, remains very calm; however, “rumors circulate like locusts.” He has encouraged all the political and military leaders “to talk to each other to clear the air, dissipate rumours, etc.
I’m continuing this effort. And I think we will get there. I’m 99,9% the military will honor the election results either way.”
When he first arrived in Bissau more than a year ago, the “atmosphere then was very tense and it was palpable,” he said. The major national players were not talking to each other, and deep fissures prevailed among regional and international partners.
From the perspective of the Security Council resolutions and directives from the secretary-general, Ramos-Horta said: “I am almost fully satisfied. I will leave having done my little part in giving hopes to the people and bringing the UN close to the people.”
He traveled all over the country, including remote, isolated towns and villages, so that the people there would “feel that the UN cared.” He added that he wanted them to feel that this is a “people’s UN — not one just of bureaucrats sheltered in our high walled compound.”
The person who replaces him will have to speak Portuguese, French and English, he said, making the UN job more challenging to fill. He also said if he is selected for the high commissioner post, he envisioned doing the UBrain job as an unpaid commentator.
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts?
Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.