Australia - East Timor Friendship Association (SA) Inc
AETFA, P.O.Box 240
Goodwood, S.A. 5034

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Map source:  La'o Hamutuk - The East Timor Institute for Reconstruction Monitoring and Analysis

The Timor Sea Dispute

  The Timor Sea between Australia & East Timor contains large seabed deposits of oil & natural gas; these are East Timor's main exportable natural resource.  The 2002 Timor Sea Treaty gave a formula for the development of an area known as the Joint Petroleum Development Area (JPDA).  Revenues flow 90% to the government of Timor Leste & 10% to the government of Australia.  The Treaty is a "temporary" arrangement because no agreed undersea boundaries have been established.  East Timor was forced to agree to this temporary arrangement because it desperately needed revenue from the Bayu Undan field to fund basic services; there is little other taxable economic activity.  For historical reasons, East Timor has never had legal boundaries - having been first colonised by Portugal & then invaded & occupied by Indonesia.  The Timorese voted 79% for independence in the 1999 referendum & spent 2 years under UN administration before formal independence in May 2002.  As newly independent states normally do, East Timor negotiated its land border with neighbour Indonesia - but its undersea boundary with Australia remains in dispute.

Regional Bully (1):  the Timor Sea Treaty                                        

  The Australian government took advantage of the pre-independence period 1999-2002 to rapidly exploit the Laminaria-Corallina field, taking over Aust$2 Billion in revenue.  East Timor never received a cent, though Laminaria-Corallina (& all of the JPDA) are on East Timor's side of the median line between the 2 nations.  According to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), anything on East Timor's side of the median line (halfway between the 2 coastlines) is in East Timor's Exclusive Economic Zone - & any revenues derived from the area belong 100% to East Timor.  Timor's leaders were told of this 2 months before independence (March 2002).  The Australian Government immediately withdrew its recognition of the International Court of Justice's jurisdiction over maritime boundaries & of UNCLOS as a method of resolving disputes.  Canberra argued that a negotiated boundary would give a more satisfactory & lasting solution than one imposed by an international umpire.  That is true of negotiations between equals; but newly independent Timor is the poorest nation in Asia, & Australia is one of the wealthiest & most powerful.  Timor is almost totally dependent on the oil revenue.  Besides, Canberra clearly showed bad faith in its "negotiation" tactics.  First it delayed boundary talks for over 12 months, despite repeated requests by Timor.  Then when talks began, it refused to discuss boundaries outside the JPDA:  clearly, Canberra didn't want its plundering of Laminaria-Corallina challenged - nor its "right" to plunder the much richer giant Sunrise field (not then open for "business").  Timor wanted boundary talks every month; Canberra would only agree to 6-monthly talks - on the grounds that it could "not afford" monthly talks (this from the government then taking $1 million a day from an oil field which belongs 100% to Timor).  UNCLOS requires states with disputed boundaries to exercise restraint over economic activities in the disputed areas.  The only restraint Canberra exercised was restraining Timor's access to its lawful entitlements.

Greed vs Need

East Timor hasn't been asking for handouts.  It wants to control its own resources & plan its own development.  The Australian government has consistently prevented that.  East Timor is one of the poorest countries in the world; it's 152nd out of 162 countries on the UN Development Index.  It faces "major development challenges in the economy, society and public administration" ("Aid to East Timor", Australian Auditor-General's report 2003).  This Australian report lists the health problems:  high infant & child mortality, low life expectancy, prevalence of malaria, tuberculosis & childhood infections, lack of access to safe water & sanitation, remoteness from health facilities - problems compounded by poverty & illiteracy.  Half of the population has never attended school & can't read or write.  The ability to provide electric power, water & sanitation, postal & telecommunication services, roads & air & sea transport is limited.  Most of the infrastructure was destroyed in post-ballot violence in 1999 - most of it hasn't been rebuilt (all from Auditor-General's report, 2003, page 12).
    During "negotiations" from 2002 to 2005, Australia repeatedly used Timor's need for revenue for basic services to bully the new nation into surrendering its rights.  The Timor Sea disputed area contains almost 100% of East Timor's potential exportable resources.  It contains less than 20% of Australia's proven oil & gas reserves.  That's only oil & gas - Australia has vast amounts of other exportable resources.  Australia is the wealthiest nation in this region (South-East Asia & the Pacific).  East Timor is the poorest nation in Asia.  The Australian Government repeatedly claimed to be "generous" in its aid to East Timor; the truth is that Australia's total aid was about 12% of the revenue it stole from its poor neighbour in Laminaria-Corallina.  East Timor lurched into crisis in 2006 when violence broke out between sections of its army & police.  The violence spread through the capital Dili, killing 34 people & displacing thousands from their homes.  Timor asked Australia & other nations to help control the violence.   Australian & NZ troops now make up an international military presence & a UN Mission has returned, with international police.  East Timor's situation regarding its resources, its boundaries, its sovereignty & independence seemed desperate in the years 2002 to 2006.  Now it is much worse!

Regional Bully (2):  CMATS

    The "offer" Australia made over Sunshine during 2002-2005 was 18% of revenue to Timor, 82% to Australia.  Australia proposed the same "temporary" agreement as the Timor Sea Treaty made over the JPDA & Bayu Undan, with boundary settlement postponed.  After an international & Australian campaign (including television advertisements by Australian businessman Ian Melrose), Canberra raised its revenue "offer" to 50/50.  Under pressure to resolve the situation, & under severe economic pressure, Timor's Government agreed.  The Treaty between Australia & Timor-Leste on Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea (CMATS) was signed by the 2 Foreign Ministers, Downer & Ramos Horta, on 12th January 2006.  Timor-Leste ratified it on February 20th 2007.  On February 7th 2007, the Australian government tabled the treaty in Parliament, & the Treaties Committee began an enquiry, inviting submissions.  Two weeks into the 5 week enquiry, Foreign Minister Downer sent a letter to the Committee invoking the "national interest exemption" to allow the treaty to enter into force immediately without further enquiry or ratification by Parliament.  Parliament was bypassed, & with it also any chance for Australian citizens to have a say in the decision.

You want independence?  Wait another 50 years!                                                                                                  

    The really nasty clause in CMATS is the one preventing East Timor seeking a permanent maritime boundary for 50 years.  It is a full frontal assault on the independence & sovereignty of the new nation.  The 50 year "temporary arrangement" has clearly been stipulated by Canberra to allow complete exploitation & depletion of all Timor Sea resources.  The implications are enormous - and appalling.  East Timor has effectively surrendered its sovereignty for 50 years so that Sunrise can be exploited.  Australia is free to help itself to an estimated Aus$20 Billion more of Timor's lawful resources (if boundaries were settled under UNCLOS, either East Timor would get 100% of Sunrise, or Indonesia may be entitled to perhaps 10% or 15%; Australia would clearly be entitled to nothing).  The Aus$2 Billion already stolen from East Timor in Laminaria-Corralina is finally surrendered to Australia under CMATS.  All areas of the Timor Sea around both Laminaria-Corralina and Sunrise will remain in dispute for another 50 years - so that any further discoveries will be claimed by Australia & disputed by East Timor.  How such disputes are played out is impossible to know - but it seems certain that the East Timorese will increasingly (justifiably) resent Australia's plundering of its resources.  Mr. Downer's claim, in his "national interest exemption" letter, that CMATS is in the national interest of both nations, is clearly utter nonsense.

    CMATS was rushed through both parliaments to get the Treaty into force before elections in both countries; it came from an unfair process.  Australia has a 2:1 advantage over Timor in representation on the Sunrise Commission (the decision-making body); proving further that CMATS is not in Timor's interest.  CMATS prevents the use of courts or other impartial means for resolving disputes, insisting on (grossly one-sided) direct negotiations.  This may be illegal, & future East Timorese governments may not feel bound by decisions made under such duress.  Australia's national interest is not served by a treaty that openly and publicly keeps East Timor from becoming financially independent & secure.

Australia's national interest is not served by CMATS, a Treaty which in effect makes the poorest nation in Asia the largest donor of foreign aid to one of the wealthiest.

Many other Australians are opposed to what our Government has been doing. 
See Timor Sea Justice Campaign

Find out more about Timor-Leste's 50 year loss of sovereignty

L'ao Hamutuk's submission on CMATS

Other submissions to the Committee

(Updated on Feb 1 2008)


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