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Australia Must Not Cheat East Timor Out of Oil

Australia Must Not Cheat East Timor Out of Its Natural Resources

Media Release
For Immediate Release
Contact: Karen Orenstein, +1-202-544-6911,

On Australia Day, U.S. Rights Group Demands that Australian Government Stop Bullying East Timor

Australian Government Must Not Cheat World¹s Newest Country Out of Billions of Dollars in Oil and Gas Revenues

January 26, 2003 -- To mark the January 26 national holiday Australia Day, the East Timor Action Network/U.S. demanded that the Australian government honor the national sovereignty and resource rights of East Timor by respecting international law in determining the maritime boundary between the two countries. Substantial oil and natural gas deposits lie under the Timor Sea between Australia and East Timor. The fate of tens of billions of dollars of revenue - and the quality of life for East Timor¹s present and future generations - depend on a fair boundary agreement.

If the currently disputed boundary were drawn according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea - the prevailing law on such matters - most, if not all, of the natural resources under debate would fall within East Timorese waters. But Australia has chosen not to play fair. Instead of resolving the issue through neutral international mediation, the Australian government has resorted to strong-arm and delaying tactics. In March 2002, it unilaterally withdrew from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ICTLOS), the mechanisms normally employed to resolve such territorial disputes.

Furthermore, the Timor Sea Treaty, an interim measure signed by East Timor and Australia, states that the treaty will be in effect for thirty years or until there is a ³permanent seabed delimitation.² Delays by the Australian government could effectively nullify East Timor¹s resource claims, as much of the oil and natural gas deposits will have been fully exploited by the end of the thirty-year period.

ETAN appreciates Australia¹s recent contributions to East Timor¹s development and the crucial security role it played in 1999 and continues to play today. On Australia Day, we wish to remind the Australian government of the tremendous assistance the East Timorese gave Australian soldiers during World War II, at the steep cost of tens of thousands of East Timorese lives. ETAN also remembers the crucial support the Australian government gave to Indonesia during that country¹s illegal and brutal military occupation of East Timor. Australia was the only country to recognize Indonesia¹s sovereignty over East Timor, giving de jure recognition to the occupation in 1978 in order to access Timor Sea resources. Australian government denial of the full rights of East Timorese to their oil and natural gas resources would be tantamount to yet another sell out of East Timor.

ETAN calls on the Australian government to treat its tiny neighbor to the north as an equal. The Australian government should fully and publicly acknowledge that the Timor Sea treaty is a tentative agreement that in no way affects or determines final maritime boundaries. Given the inability of the two countries to agree to a maritime boundary, the Australian government should rejoin the ICJ and the ITLOS and accept international arbitration. The implementation of any agreement should prioritize employment opportunities and capacity building for East Timor. ETAN urges significantly greater commitment by all parties - East Timor, Australia, and the petroleum companies involved ­ to realizing just and equitable economic development and environmental protection for East Timor.

At a more pragmatic level, allowing East Timor its fair share of oil and gas revenues benefits Australia. A stable, prosperous East Timor will produce far fewer economic refugees and will need much less economic and security assistance.

East Timorese leaders and UN representatives then administering East Timor began talks with Australia regarding the Timor Sea oil and natural gas fields following East Timor¹s 1999 independence vote. The focal point of these negotiations was the illegal Timor Gap Treaty, signed by Australia and Indonesia in 1989 during Indonesia¹s military occupation of East Timor. On East Timor¹s Independence Day, 20 May 2002, representatives from the East Timorese and Australian governments signed the interim Timor Sea Treaty. It is widely acknowledged that East Timor signed under duress. The East Timorese parliament has since ratified the treaty, and the Australian parliament is expected to do so in February.

Under the terms of the Timor Sea Treaty, East Timor would be providing more to Australia in future oil revenues than Australia has given or likely will give East Timor in foreign aid. East Timor, the world¹s newest country, suffers from high unemployment and a low level of basic services due to centuries of colonial rule and nearly a quarter-century of military occupation. The Indonesian occupation of East Timor claimed the lives of one-third of the half-island nation¹s population, and ended in a devastating scorched-earth campaign by the Indonesian military and police and their militia proxies in September 1999.

Australia Day commemorates the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove in 1788. Many Australian activists have decried the fact that the holiday celebrates a sometimes-brutal colonial history and elevates 215 years of white rule over 60,000 years of indigenous culture. The Australian government can and should begin reclaiming the holiday for justice and fairness by pledging to honor the sovereignty and resource rights of East Timor, Asia¹s poorest country.

The East Timor Action Network/U.S. supports human dignity for the people of East Timor by advocating for democracy, sustainable development, social, legal and economic justice, and human rights, including women's rights. For more information, see ETAN's web site at

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