Joanico Alves, Timor Leste
APMA 2019

Nowadays, the world faced deadly Coronavirus or Covic-19 which already affected millions  and killed more than half a million. Timor-Leste is one of the countries in Southeast Asia with low number of confirmed cases: six positive. To protect the lives of Timorese people from Covic-19 the Timorese president H.E Francisco Guterres “Lu’Olo” declared the “state of emergency” on March 28 to respond to Covic-19. The regulations of the state of emergency include cancellation of public transportation, restriction of public gathering, personal and business hygiene, quarantine and surveillance, etc. Although state of emergencies seems necessary to help protect people’s lives, but the evidence shows that the many communities do not comply, especially the restriction to movement. In response, the military general ordered the PNTL to beat those who violate the laws, which also risks violating human rights laws. Therefore, I want to know why the laws do not work to limit peoples from travelling. Why do communities risk violating the law of the state of emergencies?  Also, from a human rights perspective, why is the declaration of the military general (un)justified?

These violations include that street vendors do not respect the social distance between them and customers, and they do not wear a mask while working. Also, even though the law prohibits from taking more than one passenger in one private vehicle, some vehicles took more than one people.

Those communities violate the laws because the law threatens their survival: informal workers such as street vendors, farmers, and drivers, who need to support their families with their daily activities as well as customers who need to buy the food for their family.  Take farmers for example, more than 60% of the population are farmers, who provide substance to 80% of the population. However, their life depends on the weather and the harvest. If they cannot sell their produce, they will have no money to put food on the table. Street vendor, which is part of informal workers, which constitutes more than 60% of the population, are hand-to-mouth workers. The driver who constitutes 2% of the working adults. Costumers also need to buy basic necessities to support their families. Although the government gives out relief packages, for example, $15 electricity credit for free per household, it does not really help solve the problem of food and financial insecurity of communities since most of them are depending on daily cash income.

Concerning about the frequent violations of laws by the communities, Major General of Timor-Leste’s Army Falintil Forca Defesa Timor-Leste (F-FDTL) “Lere Anan Timur” oriented National Police of Timor-Leste to beat and slap those who do not obey the rules. He also informed the general commander of PNTL Mr. Faustino da Costa that he has the competence to implement the law seriously. In response, general commander of National Police of Timor-Leste acknowledged that the public transportation seems to become normal, and “we will be checking all the private vehicles which often go out to get basic needs or others destination”.

Ombudsman for human rights and justice (PDHJ) as an independent national human rights institution in Timor-Leste is responsible for monitoring the situation of state emergency. On April 6-8, 2020 it accused that the communities constantly violated the law of the state of emergency. For instance, PDHJ claimed that “community does not have a conscience to follow the rules of the state of emergency”, such as social distancing and wearing masks, etc.

While the military general pushed to enforce violence to punish community violating the law, PDHJ didn’t ask further why the community violated the law. It is problematic since the law does not take communities’ concerns of food and income into consideration.

From the legal perspective, both request and accusation from the military general and PDHJ seem unfounded in international human rights law. First, UDHR article 25 states that “right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services…”. Second, the Timorese government adopted the International Convention of Economic and Social Rights in 2003 states that “The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions”.

It also conflicted with the Constitution of RDTL Article 25 No.5, which says that the government has to limit fundamental rights of each citizen to protect the lives, although it does not legalize violence and discrimination against citizens: “the right not to be subjected to torture, slavery or servitude, the right not to be subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and the guarantee of non-discrimination” and food also seems to be a restricted cause of movement restriction. If police and military need to force communities to comply the laws, such a behavior will be unconstitutional.

Policy that does not respect people’s fundamental and inderogable (cannot be taken at all costs) will not work and face resistance from the ground. State of emergency prioritize the importance of public health, but it fails to consider other aspects of rights which are equally important as right to health. A street vendor in Becora Terminal said that she as a single mother to feed the sixth children says that she has to come out every day in order sell.  State of emergencies may limit people’s movement but it cannot compromise right to life and food, which are central to their survival.  Otherwise, communities, especially those who are vulnerable in the society, will soon face a hard choice, die from hunger or from virus. Policy must cover both aspects of mitigating the pandemic through social/movement restriction as well as the fundamental rights (life and food) or this policy is not efficient and respected by people.

Photo by UCAN.

*The contents of this opinion piece are solely those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the view of the either Global Campus of Human Rights Asia Pacific, the universities under it, or the APMA program.

*This article was originally published by SHAPESEA

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