1996 Nobel Peace Prize — José Ramos-Horta, Freedom Fighter and Democracy Builder

In 1975 Indonesia invaded East Timor, rounded up their political leaders and executed them on the docks of the capital. They then began a systematic extermination of the Timorese people.

East Timor, known today as Timor Leste, a small island at the bottom of the Indonesian archipelago, just North of the Australian outback, had been a Portuguese colony for 400 years. In the period that followed the Indonesian invasion, a twenty four year reign of terror ensued. Approximately one-third of the country’s citizens lost their lives due to starvation, epidemics and assassination. Torture centers were fixtures in the main cities. Political prisoners were dropped live from helicopters into the salt marshes, and moe.

José Ramos-Horta, a 24 year old Timorese budding journalist, arrived New York just days before the invasion. Having never seen snow or a skyscraper, he made his way to the UN where he addressed the UN Security Council on events in his country.

He was made a UN Special Representative for his people, the youngest UN diplomat in history. For twenty-four years, Ramos-Horta was the international voice for a forgotten and dying people. He organized human rights networks, kept his country in the media, and tirelessly kept the issue on the UN floor.

His efforts bore fruit in 1999 when the United Nations sponsored a referendum allowing the Timorese to vote for their future and attain self rule. When the country erupted in violence, he rallied international support resulting in a UN Peacekeeping Force moving in to stop the violence and begin re-building the country.

In 2002 Ramos-Horta presided over East Timor’s Independence Celebration, when the UN formally handed power to the country’s democratically elected President, Prime Minister and Parliament. In 2006 he became Prime Minister of his country, then served as President of the world’s youngest democracy, a country he helped to create.

He has done a number of high-level missions for the UN Secretary General and continues to serve in a global peace building capacity today.