tip off

Our land is girt by oil-rich sea … that we steal from East Timor

Australia has been stealing billions of dollars from one of our poorest neighbours, writes Clinton Fernandes, associate professor at the University of New South Wales in Canberra and specialist in Australian foreign policy.

Australia has been flouting international law since 2002, taking billions of dollars in oil revenue that should rightfully belong to East Timor. No wonder we’re being so cagey about the East Timor spying allegations.

In the Senate yesterday, independent Senator Nick Xenophon asked Attorney-General George Brandis about reports in the Fairfax press that a former spy and his lawyer might be charged with disclosing classified information about Australian espionage against East Timor.

East Timor is alleging before a three-person arbitration panel in The Hague that Australia breached international law by bugging East Timor’s cabinet rooms during the 2004 bilateral negotiations over the Timor Sea Treaty. A key witness for East Timor is a former spy who is said to be the director of all technical operations for the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, which allegedly conducted the bugging operation using the Australian aid program as a cover. On December 3, 2013, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation raided his house and the office and home of Bernard Collaery, a former attorney-general of the Australian Capital Territory who is providing legal advice to the government of East Timor. ASIO seized documents and data containing correspondence between East Timor’s government and its legal advisers.

The former spy, known as Witness K, is due to testify at The Hague on September 27.

It is quite distasteful to see Australia’s intelligence services being used to deprive the people of East Timor of their principal economic asset.”

Xenophon wanted to know whether the government would permit Witness K to travel to The Hague unimpeded (provided, of course, that the identities of current and former ASIS officers were not disclosed). After all, if he were prevented from giving evidence, that would impede a fair hearing. Brandis gave the standard defensive formulation: the matter is “currently before an international arbitral tribunal” and “it is the longstanding practice of Australian governments not to comment on matters currently before international arbitration”.

East Timor is a fragile, new state, barely more than a decade old. It would like to draw a maritime border halfway between the Australian and East Timor coasts, as it is entitled to do under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. However, in March 2002, just two months before East Timor became independent, Alexander Downer, then Australia’s foreign minister, announced that henceforth Australia would exclude all disputes relating to the delimitation of maritime zones from the compulsory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice and the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea. This meant that East Timor has the law on its side but can derive no benefit from that fact.

In 2004, Australia agreed to a median line boundary — with New Zealand, when we established a maritime boundary to resolve overlapping claims off the coast of Norfolk Island.

If international law were to apply, East Timor would be entitled to 100% of the oil and gas on its side of the median line in the Timor Sea. This includes the single most crucial resource, namely the Greater Sunrise field, the bulk of which lies just outside the lateral boundary of the Gap.

It is quite distasteful to see Australia’s intelligence services being used to deprive the people of East Timor of their principal economic asset. Since 1999, Australia has taken more than $4 billion in oil revenue that should rightfully belong to East Timor. Having taken a large portion of the wealth of one of the poorest countries in Asia, the Australian government has given back about $0.4 billion in bilateral and multilateral assistance, and about $0.5 billion in military assistance. This means that East Timor, believe it or not, is Australia’s largest international donor. This is not a typo.

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  • 1
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Tuesday, 2 September 2014 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Is international law on maritime boundaries really that cut and dried? I’m no lawyer, much less an international one, but Article 77.1 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, viz.

    The coastal State exercises over the continental shelf sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring it and exploiting its natural resources.

    would seem to indicate that Australia’s claim over the Timor Sea has some basis legally, for all that it may be questionable morally. Geologically, the oil fields do appear to lie astride the Australian continental mass.

    It seems that we’ve been here before: crikey.com.au/2013/02/12/woodside-gas-deal-could-redraw-australia-east-timor-borders/#comment-237406

  • 2
    Chris Gulland
    Posted Tuesday, 2 September 2014 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    Just another example of why we taxpeyers have such a low opinion of our elected leaders. This oil grab was and still is morally wrong, would Australia allow a neighbouring country to pull the same stunt? And now the current cohort of ministers want to cover it up, whilst the decision makers of the day are rewarded with inflated superanution packages, and other perks, that we can only dream about.

  • 4
    Bob's Uncle
    Posted Tuesday, 2 September 2014 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    “The bullying of small nations by big ones and assertions that might is right should have no place in our world”

    Tony Abbott, Question Time, 1 September 2014

    Oh, he was talking about Russia? Disregard.

  • 5
    klewso
    Posted Tuesday, 2 September 2014 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    It’s not as though they’re real people, are they?”?

  • 6
    Stephen
    Posted Tuesday, 2 September 2014 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    It’s just one good Christian misusing his powers to protect another good Christian who misused his powers.

  • 7
    Aidan Stanger
    Posted Wednesday, 3 September 2014 at 2:24 am | Permalink

    If international law were to apply, East Timor would be entitled to 100% of the oil and gas on its side of the median line in the Timor Sea. This includes the single most crucial resource, namely the Greater Sunrise field, the bulk of which lies just outside the lateral boundary of the Gap.

    If it’s outside the lateral boundary of the gap, doesn’t that mean it’s closer to Indonesia than East Timor? In which case, contrary to your assertion, their claim under international law is very weak.

    Australia’s spying was disgraceful and we shouldn’t steal their oil. East Timor should be entitled to 100% of the oil and gas revenue from where they’re the closest country. But I see no reason why they should be entitled to any of what is generally regarded as not theirs and would be undisputedly not theirs had Australia’s border with Indonesia been defined by the current law.

  • 8
    wbddrss
    Posted Wednesday, 3 September 2014 at 3:15 am | Permalink

    West Irian(Indonesia), PNG & Australia all share the same continental shelf. I feel policy on disputes regarding oil on this continental shelf should be by consultation by those three entities which does not include East Timor.

    Other parts of the world such as Mediterranean, or north sea have (to best of my knowledge) have given us precedents which may or may not be binding. Africa is fragmented. All continents except Antarctica are fragmented. So it stands to reason where two continents overlap a continental shelf, then 1/2 way boundary sounds reasonable. Otherwise, it should be by consultation between those countries which are part of that continent to negotiate and agree. Timor is not part of Australia’s continental shelf, hence they are being a little bit pushy & bravado.

    In regard to East Timor’s governance systems, then we cannot be accountable for their lack of governance in how they allocate fairly existing resources. After 10 years they have really made a mess of their country. Not our problem.
    wbddrss

  • 9
    Ken Westmoreland
    Posted Wednesday, 3 September 2014 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    Yes, East Timor is dysfunctional, but a lot of that is the legacy of having to build a country in which 70 per cent of the infrastructure was destroyed, and it is not just its leaders who have made a mess of the country, but overpaid and underworked foreign advisers, many of whom Australian, who delight in using patronising terms like “capacity building” and “good governance”. So yes, it is Australia’s problem, especially given how the Murdoch press barracked for the removal of the parsimonious Fretilin government, and its replacement with the profligate AMP one, which spends like the country is as resource-rich as Brunei, when it’s more likely to end up like Nauru.

    As for “West Irian” - even the Indonesian government calls it Papua!

  • 10
    Wayne Thompson
    Posted Wednesday, 3 September 2014 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

    This has been, and continues to be , a despicable situation. We have ripped off this fledgling nation because of greed and the activities of our Politicians, Minders,lobbyists and multi-nationals.
    We should have the guts to tell them to cease their activities and negotiate boundaries that provide long term benefits to the rightful owners. I feel ashamed to be an Australian when we conduct ourselves in this manner.

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