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Jose Ramos-Horta: Achieving peace amid Muslim tensions

Jose Ramos-Horta is the foreign minister of East Timor, and co-recipient of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize. South Pacific island of East Timor had been controlled by military forces from nearby Muslim-dominated Indonesia since 1975. During that time, about one-third of the East Timorese were killed by war, starvation and human rights abuses allegedly imposed by the Indonesian military. Ramos-Horta, as the island's then-Ambassador to the United Nations, brought worldwide attention to the plight. He joined the chat room via telephone from Oslo, Norway.

CNN: Welcome to Newsroom Mr. Ramos-Horta. Thank you for being our guest today.

RAMOS-HORTA: It's a pleasure.

CNN: You are in Oslo recognizing Kofi Annan and the Nobel Peace Prize. Are you encouraged that the United Nations is being recognized at this level?

RAMOS-HORTA: I am first happy that Kofi Annan in his capacity is a recipient of the prize. He very much deserves it. The United Nations as an institution, for what it stands for, for what it tries to do, with a lot of failings, still is the best hope for humanity. Therefore, I believe that the peace prize is a very good shot in the arm for an organization that desperately needs international support.

In-Depth: Nobel Centennial 

CHAT PARTICIPANT: In this world today, how can anyone receive a peace award?

RAMOS-HORTA: That is a very good question, but I would answer by saying that in the midst of conflict, there were, and must be always people who struggle to bring about justice, peace and freedom. I give you some examples [such as] someone like Schindler, who saved thousands of Jew's lives during World War II. In the current situation, in the past 10 years, when faced with numerous conflicts around the world, there were people, individuals who made enormous sacrifice to contain violence. So, these are remarkable individuals that deserve recognition. That recognition gives inspiration to others to do the same.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Has Osama bin Laden been discredited at all among the Muslim populations that previously supported him?

RAMOS-HORTA: I believe so. The likes of Osama bin Laden have caused far more pain and death to Muslims than to Europeans, Americans and Christians. In Algeria alone, in the past 10 years, 100,000 Algerian women and children, defenseless human beings, were slaughtered by Islamic fundamentalists. In Iraq, tens of thousands of Iraqis died at the hands of Saddam Hussein. Hussein was the first leader to use biological weapons, and not on Europeans or Americans, but on fellow Muslims, during the Iran-Iraq war. I hope that those in the Arab and Muslim world who rightly demand justice, demand freedom, should not see Osama bin Laden as an idol, because he is the opposite. He is a terrorist, a war criminal, who has through his arrogance brought so much suffering to the Afghan people, He brought the war to Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden. No one else. That is why Afghans are angry at him. They want him and his followers, al Qaeda, out of Afghanistan. The al Qaeda fighters are actually mercenaries.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Did the UN help to place and support democratic institutions in your country?

RAMOS-HORTA: Yes, absolutely, the United Nations, but equally under the leadership of Secretary-General Kofi Annan has had an enormous impact of building democracy in East Timor, in helping us build our nation. We had elections this year in August for our assembly, which went without one single violent incident. Almost 40 percent of the elected deputies are women. This is the highest average anywhere in the world, with the exception of Sweden. That was very much part, but not entirely, of the role that the UN played in East Timor.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you think that territorial issues and border disputes are the root of most conflicts today?

RAMOS-HORTA: Not today. In the past centuries, countries went to war because of territory disputes. Today's conflicts have been far more internal ones, within a state, rather than between states. Most of the conflicts, unfortunately, have been of an ethnic or religious nature, fueled by misconceptions, by demagogues that manipulate a religion to achieve political aims. Osama bin Laden is one of these who uses religion to achieve political aims. He is as much of a demagogue as Hitler and Mussolini, as much as Amin was. These demagogues pose a danger to their own people and to the rest of the world.

CNN: What are your thoughts about the war against the Taliban and how would you say that your experiences in your own country of East Timor have shaped that opinion?

RAMOS-HORTA: Let me tell you this. If anyone wants to talk about war, I know war. I lost three brothers, a sister during the occupation. We haven't even been able to recover the bones of three of them. A quarter of my people died under the occupation. A quarter of only 700,000. I know war, and I don't want war, or violence. I don't want to see weapons. If you talk to me about poverty, I know what that is. I deal with it every day. I must be one of the few Nobel Peace Prize holders who gave away the medal and award. I put it in a scheme called Micro Credit for the Poor. We provide small loans from 100-1000 dollars U.S. to the poor, to establish small businesses. It has been very successful.

So I oppose wars as a matter of personal conviction. But because of my own experience, I also say that sometimes the use of force is necessary to put an end to tyranny and genocide. Can anyone condemn the U.S. for having intervened during World War II, to save the Jews from total annihilation? Can we condemn the NATO countries for intervening against Milosevic in 1998? For saving the Kosovars from annihilation? And moving to Afghanistan, it is often far too simplistic for blaming the U.S. But people forget that the U.S. gave an ultimatum to the Taliban regime to turn over Osama bin Laden. Pakistani diplomats traveled to Kabul twice, to persuade the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden. Here you have a state, Afghanistan, ruled by a regime that hosted a network and boasted about it, and defied the rest of the world about it. So, what should you do? The pacifists say "bring them to justice." Sure. Tell me how to bring them to justice without using force.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Many years ago people thought that you were fighting a lost cause. How does it feel and what was the deciding factor?

RAMOS-HORTA: Well, yes, I heard so many times that our cause was a lost one. But my people refused to listen. We kept our faith. We kept our dream. We continued to lobby the international community. We had a lot of friends from all over the world including the U.S. We had support of members of the U.S. Congress, from the American Solidarity Movement, from churches, to achieve all of that, to organize this mass movement. It took a lot of dialogue, patience, and humiliation sometimes. But we kept on, and one day, God decided that we should be free, and we are free today.

CNN: Do you have any closing comments today?

RAMOS-HORTA: I'm in Oslo in the midst of the great celebration to tell those who despair not to despair, not to lose faith, not to lose hope, to persevere, to stay focused on your goal, to achieve peace and freedom, not to betray your compassion and generosity. In the U.S. and other western countries, a particular appeal to Christians and others: do not make sweeping judgments about Muslims and Arabs. As I mentioned earlier, there have been far greater number of Muslim victims of the Muslim fundamentalist terrorist than Christians, Europeans and Americans. So my appeal [is to] go out and embrace them, wherever they are. Muslims and Arabs have had their share of suffering, prejudice, racism. They should not be blamed for Osama bin Laden's terror tactics.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Foreign Minister Ramos-Horta.

RAMOS-HORTA: It was a pleasure.

Jose Ramos-Horta joined the chat room via telephone from Oslo and provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Monday, December 10, 2001 at 11 a.m. EDT.


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