From UNE to the UN: a journey of passion

Published 02 November 2017

Living in exile in Australia for 20 years during the Indonesian occupation of East Timor did nothing to quell the young Maria (Milena) Pires’ passion for her homeland.

Throughout her studies at the UNE during the 1980s, the 2017 Distinguished Alumni Award winner continued to follow its politics with intense interest and to advocate for independence.

That she eventually became a member of Timor-Leste’s first National Parliament and is now Timor-Leste’s Ambassador to the United Nations is testament to the critical role she has played in the rebuilding of her nation.

After graduating from UNE with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1990 (with double majors in Sociology and English Literature, and a minor in  Politics), and working abroad to raise attention to her people’s right to self-determination, Milena returned home to a country she barely recognised.

She soon became an active advocate of women’s empowerment, improved governance and development, and threw herself into working to improve the lives of her people, promoting human rights for women and mental health services.

The trauma of having her own brother killed by militia in 1999, and seeing the conditions under which her sister-in-law was forced to live, further steeled Milena’s resolve to advocate on behalf of the country’s most vulnerable.

As a policy development officer funded by the Catholic Institute for International Relations, she sought to draw attention to the shocking rates of domestic violence against women and the importance of women’s participation in politics and decision-making.

On the political stage, Milena’s rise parallels that of her country.

She was a founding member of the centralist Social Democratic Party (PSD) and became a member of the Constituent Assembly in 2001, helping to draft the Constitution of Timor-Leste.

In 2000 Milena was elected Deputy Speaker of the National Council, established by the United Nations Transitional Administration and became campaign director for President of East Timor, Xanana Gusmão, in 2002.

Her abiding passion for justice saw Milena take an active role in compiling the assessment of the justice sector for Timor-Leste’s State of the Nation Report in 2008, before she was appointed as the senior adviser to the Vice Prime Minister, tasked with administrative reform of the Timorese public service.

From 2011-2014 Milena served as one of 23 international experts on the UN’s Committee for the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). As well as assessing progress in 186 countries during her mandate with the CEDAW Committee, she also contributed to the preparation of Timor-Leste’s initial report for CEDAW.

From 2013-2014 Milena was also the executive director and founding member of the Centre for Women and Gender Studies  in Timor-Leste.

Even her political opponents have praised Milena’s positive approach to finding solutions to her country’s many challenges based on consensus. As her country sought to rebuild and heal itself following years of military occupation, Milena understood that lasting change could only be achieved through improved policy and laws, both nationally and internationally.

Now, as the Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Timor-Leste to the United Nations, Milena continues to advocate on behalf of Timor-Leste and to mobilise international support and resources to assist its development.

Reflecting on her studies at UNE, Milena said they have proven invaluable.

“It equipped me with the analytical skills and ability to empathise that have proven critical in all aspects of my subsequent work – in community development, counselling, program development and coordination, consultancy, politics and now diplomacy,” she said.

“UNE helped me to develop a curiosity and interest in learning beyond my chosen subject areas.

“Studying English literature and being exposed to various British and Australian authors instilled in me a love of reading that continues to this day and serves me well in being able to get through the endless documents produced at the United Nations.”