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Australia Bowls Underarm To East Timor

CARITAS (NZ Catholic Agency for Justice Peace & Development)
published in CARITAS UPDATE, 34, Winter 2004.; ph 04 496 1742

Australia Bowls Underarm To East Timor: The Lure Of Oil And Gas Makes For Dirty Tricks

Oil, it is a small word that causes big things. Not enough oil and you find petrol prices go up. Too much oil, especially when it is spilling into the ocean after a tanker has crashed and you have an environmental disaster.

Here in our own corner of the world, far away from the leaders of OPEC, the issue of oil is threatening to cause a sticky mess in relations between Australia and the world's newest nation, East Timor.

Australia has claimed ownership of two-thirds of the vast oil and gas reserves that lie beneath the Timor Sea, the 645-kilometre stretch of water that divides the two countries. The richest field, Greater Sunrise is just 145km off East Timor's coast.

The history of this maritime dispute lies in the East Timor's long and brutal occupation by Indonesian forces. In a boundary agreed by Australia and Indonesia in 1972, most of the reserves were placed inside Australian territory, this was ratified in a treaty in 1989. Meantime, Australia acknowledged Indonesia's annexation of tiny East Timor.

As a new nation, East Timor must of course negotiate its borders. Negotiations recently began in April to address the issue of the maritime boundary. Canberra insists on keeping the 1972 boundary. But Dili rightly points out that this was negotiated with an illegal occupying power. It may be fine for the border with Indonesia, but not for that between East Timor and Australia. They want to take the matter to the neutral International Court on the Law of the Sea. This Law normally results in the adoption of maritime borders mid-way between two countries. Conveniently Australia withdrew from the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice in relation to maritime boundary issues just before East Timor's independence in 2002.

Since 1999, Australia has reaped US$1 million a day from exploitation of the Corallina/Laminaria oil field, which lies beneath East Timor's half of the seabed. The undeveloped Greater Sunrise alone contains US$25 billion. Under the status quo East Timor's share would be just over US$4 billion over the coming decades but if the boundary was set along the median line it would receive US$12 billion. In fact, it may qualify for the lion's share of the oil. To further aggravate the issue Canberra is issuing exploration licences to oil companies for fields in disputed territories. In other words, exploiting the oil before Timor even has a chance to pursue its rights.

For East Timor, a country where 41 per cent of the population live in extreme poverty and 12 per cent of children die before the age of five mainly due to preventable diseases, the revenue from these oil and gas reserves offer a lifeline. They could help transform this fledgling country, from one dependant on foreign aid to one that is prosperous and self-sufficient. The revenue could be used to build desperately needed infrastructure, develop healthcare and education programmes and invest in industries.

Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand wrote to New Zealand's Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Hon Phil Goff asking that as a country who has worked to see a better future for the people of East Timor, our government should urge Australia to negotiate in good faith a fair maritime boundary with East Timor based on International Law.

The response from the Minister stated that while the New Zealand government supports East Timor's development through its NZAID programme, it is a bilateral matter for the governments of Australia and East Timor "to work out within the parameters of international law." If this stance continues then East Timor will have to look futher afield than it's Pacific neighbours who seem happy for it to continue to be dependant on them foreign aid rather than become an a fully independent voice in the Asia-Pacific region.

In seeking resolution of this issue, East Timor is not asking for special treatment. It simply wants to take the matter to the International Court on the Law of the Sea, and have the matter dealt with fairly and impartially. That this is being denied to them by Australia is a blight on our region and something New Zealand, itself a small country, should be very concerned about.


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