He was actively involved in the development of political awareness in what was then Portuguese Timor which caused him to be exiled for two years in 1970 - 1971 to Portuguese East Africa. It was a family tradition as his grand-father too had suffered exile, from Portugal to the Azores Islands, then Cape Verde, Portuguese Guinea and finally to Portuguese Timor.
A moderate in the emerging Timorese nationalist leadership, he was appointed Foreign Minister in the "Democratic Republic of East Timor" government proclaimed by the pro-independence parties in November 1975. Ramos-Horta left East Timor three days before the Indonesian troops invaded to plead the Timorese case before the United Nations.
Ramos-Horta arrived in New York to address the UN Security Council and urge them to take action in the face of the Indonesian military onslaught which would result in over 200. 000 East Timorese deaths between 1976 and 1981. José Ramos-Horta was the Permanent Representative of Fretilin to the UN for the ensuing ten years.
In December 1996, José Ramos-Horta shared the Nobel Peace Prize with his fellow countryman, Bishop Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo. The Nobel Committee chose to honour the two laureates for their 'sustained efforts to hinder the oppression of a small people', hoping that 'this award will spur efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict of East Timor based on the people's right to self- determination. The Committee considers José Ramos-Horta 'the leading international spokesman for East Timor's cause since 1975.'
José Ramos-Horta studied Public International Law at The Hague Academy of International Law (1983) and at Antioch University where he completed an MA in Peace Studies (1984). He was trained in Human Rights Law at the International Institute of Human Rights In Strasbourg, France (1983). He attended Post-Graduate courses in American Foreign Policy at Columbia University, New York (1983). He is a Senior Associate Member of St Anthony´s College, Oxford, England (1987).