Following the closure of the United Nation’s peacekeeping mission in Timor-Leste, a new form of engagement involving the country, and local and international agencies has emerged. Noeleen Heyzer describes the current state of development in the young nation, and shares how active collaboration at all levels can engineer breakthroughs in helping a country unlock its potential in the region.
Dr Heyzer, how did you come on board to become the Special Adviser to Timor-Leste?
Timor-Leste voted for independence from Indonesia in 1999 and became a fully independent state in 2002. Since 1999, the UN has supported the country’s transition with five successive missions mandated by Security Council Resolutions: UNAMET, UNTAET, UNMISET, UNOTIL and UNMIT.1
After the end of UNMIT’s mandate in December 2012, the country wanted a new form of engagement with the UN. When the Secretary-General visited Timor-Leste, there was discussion on what that new engagement could be. They wanted an innovative partnership, one in which the country was very much in the driver's seat. Many names were being recommended, and in the process, the government made it clear that they wanted not so much a governance-political person, but more a development person who could link the country to the region. The Timorese government asked for me and between the country and the Secretary-General, they decided. For this role, you need to have the trust of the leadership—of the President, the Prime Minister, and many of his Cabinet Ministers. With the country feeling that they got what they wanted, it became much easier for me to do my work.
What was your previous experience with Timor-Leste prior to this appointment?
When I was the Executive Director of UNIFEM, we focused on women in conflict-affected countries. This was particularly after the adoption of Security Council Resolution 1325 that looked at women, peace and security, which my team and I helped to draft. There were issues of justice and support to networks of women who could engage with the rebuilding of the country. We managed to build women’s leadership and support them in Parliament. Timor-Leste today has the highest percentage of women parliamentarians in Asia.
The country gained independence in May 2002, and in January 2003, I visited Timor-Leste. That must have been my third visit to the country. This time, it was to respond to a call by a woman in the mountainous region of Mauxiga. This was also where the Prime Minister himself was hiding when he was a resistance fighter. It was a place where the brutality against women was terrible, because they were hiding the resistance fighters. This woman named Olga De Silva hitchhiked to Dili because she heard about the Timor-Leste Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation. She told my national programme officer, "At the time of the struggle, we sacrificed so much. But in times of peace, no one has come to provide us with support services. And we have not seen our leaders." I heard her in New York and I wanted her to know that.
I went up to Mauxiga accompanied by the Deputy Minister of Health and my UNIFEM team. When we arrived, the villagers were out dancing to receive us. It was very moving. We listened to the stories of the people, and understood their sacrifices, their problems and also what was most needed. I said to the Deputy Minister, "I want to make a pledge. And I want you also to make a pledge."
My pledge to the community was to bring a team of Singapore doctors as the community faced the problems of severe maternal mortality and stunted growth of children. I announced my pledge and the Deputy Minister of Health also promised to establish basic health services. Later, I got in touch with Dr Kanwaljit Soin and with help from Robert Chua (our current ambassador in Myanmar who was with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Singapore at that time), she headed a team to the mountains. Today, the community is better served and have basic healthcare.
Dr Noeleen Heyzer is an Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations. She is currently the UNSG’s Special Adviser for Timor-Leste, working to support peacebuilding, state-building and sustainable development.
She was the first woman to serve as the Executive Secretary of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific since its founding in 1947. Under her leadership (August 2007 to January 2014), the commission focused on regional cooperation for a more resilient Asia-Pacific, founded on shared prosperity, social equity, and sustainable development. She was at the forefront of many innovations including for regional disaster preparedness, inclusive socio-economic policies, sustainable agriculture and urbanisation, energy security and regional connectivity.
As the previous Executive Director of the UN Development Fund for Women, she was widely recognised for the formulation and implementation of Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security.
She holds a BA and a MSc from Singapore University, a PhD from Cambridge University, and has received numerous awards for leadership.