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Correspondence with Mr Greg French, DFAT (Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade), Government of Australia

Topic: Timor's Oil


* Sister Susan Connelly,

Spokesperson on oil issues & Deputy Director of MMIETS,
Member of TSJC, Sydney

* Sister Josephine Mitchell,
Director of MMIETS,
Member of TSJC, Sydney

Mary MacKillop Institute for East Timorese Studies (MMIETS)

Phone: 02 9623 2847

About the Mary MacKillop Institute / Institutu Mary MacKillop:

Timor Sea Justice Coalition (TSJC) - Sydney

The following details comments received from Mr Greg French, of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, by Sisters Josephine Mitchell and Susan Connelly in response to a letter they wrote on 25 April 2004 on the matter of the resources of the Timor Sea. 

Their responses in normal print follow the points of the letter in bold.

“Australia has long been at the forefront of international assistance to East Timor.” 

This is an astounding claim which cannot go unchallenged.   Australia has not long been in the forefront of assistance to East Timor at all. Australia’s support for East Timor  was practically non-existent for 23 years, then reluctantly cautious when Suharto collapsed.  Mounting public opinion was the moving force behind  the assistance given by any Government.  No Australian Government of any complexion ever had the honesty or the compassion or the courage to risk overriding “our most important relationship”, that with Indonesia.

The tax revenue Australia has received from the Laminaria/Coralima oil field, which is in one of the areas claimed by East Timor and therefore in dispute has been one million dollars a day since 1999. That’s nearly $2 billion which we have received, ten times the amount we have spent on supporting East Timor.

“Our role in East Timor’s transition to independence was crucial, including encouraging Indonesia to give the East Timorese people an act of self-determination.  Later we brought together and led an international coalition –INTERFET – that ended the violence and restored security in  1999.” 

After the Asian financial collapse and as a result of the internal upheaval in Indonesia occasioned by resistance to Suharto and his final fall, Australia did play an important role, with our leaders at long last heeding something of the anguish of many Australians whose efforts had hitherto been treated as emotional trouble-making. Australia did no more than its duty as the closest and richest neighbour of East Timor, so complicit for decades in East Timor’s problems. It must always be remembered, and continually stated, that the people who achieved East Timor’s independence were the Timorese people.

“Australia is committed to negotiating a maritime boundary with East Timor, in good faith and in accordance with International law.” 

Why is it then, that on 25 March 2002, the then Attorney-General Daryl Williams and the Minister for Foreign Affairs Alexander Downer announced that while accepting the ICJ and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea as venues for compulsory settlement under the Law of the Sea Convention, it made the declaration that it would exclude the setting of maritime boundaries from such compulsory resolution. (emphasis ours).  If good faith and accord with International law are Australia’s standard of conduct, why withdraw from such relevant aspects of maritime jurisdiction?

The good faith which this Government claims is not illustrated by this withdrawal, nor by the underhanded way it is explained. DFAT has written to some members of the public that Australia “remains a Party” to UNCLOS, a statement designed to mislead.  They don’t say clearly that whilst officially a Party to the Convention and to the Court of Justice,  Australia has withdrawn from those elements of the ICJ and UNCLOS which affect the dispute between East Timor and Australia. It is dishonest to pretend adherence to the whole while omitting to mention self-imposed exclusion from the only relevant part.  Such a  misleading statement is quite serious.

Supposed good faith is also not evident in the inordinate haste with which the Timor Sea Treaty was rushed through Parliament on March 5, 2003.  Members of Parliament complained about the speed with which this Treaty was despatched and that they were given only a matter of a few hours to peruse it and respond.  (Peter Andren, Member for Calare; Michael Organ, Member for Cunningham)

“In International law in general, and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in particular, do not prescribe any single solution to questions of maritime boundary delineation.

Correct; it must be done taking into consideration all the circumstances.  That is why justice is better served if one party does not withdraw from international bodies which deal best with such matters.

“The assertion that a number of oil and gas fields, over which Australia has exercised sovereignty for a long period of time, actually belong to East Timor is incorrect. These deposits do in fact lie closer to Indonesia than to East Timor and were the subject of negotiations that led to the 1972 Australia-Indonesia Seabed Boundary Agreement.  It is pursuant to this agreement that the relevant deposits fall under exclusive Australian seabed jurisdiction.”

The point of the argument is that these areas are in dispute.  Saying that disputed areas belong to Australia is just as incorrect as saying they belong to East Timor. The circumstances have changed with East Timor’s independence. As a new player in the field Timor has rights as an equal and sovereign nation to claim fair boundaries.

Australia’s claim to “sovereignty” over these areas does not have a firm foundation in law, because deals were done and boundaries were set with the illegal occupying power, Indonesia.  These deals between an invading force and the only Western nation to recognise Indonesia officially, Australia, suffer from such a flimsy basis. The decision as to who now owns what can only be taken under complete and transparent international oversight.  Australia’s present jurisdiction has been compromised by its recognition of the illegal occupation of Timor by Indonesia.  The consequences of folly should be borne by the foolish.

“Until final maritime boundaries are established Australia and East Timor have negotiated interim measures in order to ensure East Timor’s economic independence. Under the Timor Sea Treaty, Australia and East Timor agreed to a very generous arrangement that split petroleum resources within the “Joint Petroleum Development Area” 90:10 in East Timor’s favour, pending a final settlement.  This compares favourably with the 50:50 split under previous arrangements for the same area with Indonesia.” 

If the internationally accepted median line were the boundary, East Timor would own 100% of the JPDA, so in effect, the Timorese are giving us 10% of this area.  The 90:10 split is not “generous” at all; Indonesia was the illegal occupier of East Timor when that agreement took place, therefore, it was an illegal arrangement and should not be used by Australia as a yardstick of  generosity.

“In addition, the two countries also negotiated an International Unitisation Agreement for the Greater Sunrise field.” 

If Australia had recognised the complete change in relationships occasioned by East Timor’s independence and set its shoulder to the wheel to get fair seabed boundaries according to International Law, the ownership of Greater Sunrise would be seen for what it is, an area to which East Timor has a very strong claim. Transparent and honest dealings may have been able to determine ownership quickly, perhaps relieving everyone of the need of an IUA.

Using our significant clout in “negotiating” with East Timor without the constraints of the ICJ or ITLOS, the IUA is a very handy agreement indeed, ensuring Australia retains the lion’s share of an area which is in dispute. 

“Australia has done all that is necessary to being this agreement into force also.” 

Australia is not doing all that is necessary to bring about a just solution to both players in this dispute. The Timorese have asked for more frequent meetings than the twice a year which Australia is prepared to attend. But it has been reported that the Australian Government has made the extraordinary claim that it does not have the resources to meet more than twice a year. Australian officials are quoted as saying:  “Canberra is busy with other sea boundary talks and its resources [are] so stretched that the discussions could take decades.”  The Financial Times,  27th November 2003

When the boundary was set between Australia and Indonesia in 1972, it took less than three years to decide on it.  The decisions involved two treaties, and the area considered was larger than the one presently under discussion. Australia was also able undertake the momentous task of  excising parts of its territory for migration purposes, and this was done in in one Parliamentary sitting.  For justice to be served it is necessary that the boundary be decided as a matter of priority which could be within three to five years if the parties so chose.

“Unfortunately, East Timor has not yet honoured its commitment to that agreement.” 

Could it be that East Timor is now quite conversant with the way Australia does business?

The requirements given by Prime Minister, Mr Mari Alkatiri for his Government’s ratification of the Unitization Agreement is that Australia
* agrees to set a timetable for border negotiations, 
* stops issuing petroleum exploration licenses in areas of overlapping claims, 
* takes the dispute to an independent arbitrator if bilateral negotiations fail. 

These expectations seem quite fair and would surely be the minimum which any nation, including Australia, would require in similar circumstances. 

“It is clearly within Australia’s national interest that East Timor be a stable and economically self-sufficient neighbour.


On Four Corners ABC TV 26.05.04 Alexander Downer said: “If there is an issue of economic disparity between Australia and East Timor that should be addressed through aid, which it is.  It should not be  addressed through shifting boundaries and changing International Law.” 

The aid given by Australia to East Timor since 1999 is one tenth the amount which Australia receives in tax revenue from the Laminaria/Corallima oil field which is being exploited even though it is in a disputed area. We think this Government would prefer to see a dependent East Timor, one more likely to be controlled by aid and debt, than a free and self-sufficient small neighbour.  It seems that shifting boundaries and changing international law are only fair game when it benefits Australia.

“Australia will continue to assist and cooperate closely with East Timor in the longer-term.” 

We will continue to hope and to work for this outcome

About MMIETS (the Mary MacKillop Institute for East Timorese Studies)

This info last updated: 12 Aug 2004

MMIETS is a Sydney and Dili based charitable institute established in 1994
by the Religious of St. Joseph (the order of the Blessed Mary MacKillop - Australia's first and only saint officially recognised by the Roman Catholic church) in response to an appeal for help by Bishop Belo (Diocese of Dili) and in consultation with the East Timorese community. It was created to assist in meeting the cultural, educational, health and material needs of the people of East Timor. MMIETS is safeguarding East Timorese culture by promoting the use of the language Tetum within the Church and general education and is developing a Tetum literacy program to this end. 

Sister Josephine Mitchell, RSJ (Religious of St. Joseph - "Brown Jo's")

Spokesperson on oil issues, Deputy Director of MMIETS:
Sister Susan Connelly, RSJ

Reception / Secretarial:
Noreen Nicoara

Editor and Supervisor of Linguistics (based in Dili):
Father Leão da Costa, Director of Catholic Education, Fundação São Paulo

Linguist, Educator (based in Dili):
Sister Teresa (Tess) A. Ward, FDNSC (Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart)

Timorese Tetun language expertise (based in Sydney):
Luisa da Cunha Marques
Filomena de Oliveira

Health worker/educator, nurse:
Sister Joan Westblade, LCM (Little Company of Mary)

MMIETS - Sydney, Australia:
20 Mamre Rd, St Marys
PO Box 299, St Marys NSW 1790
Phone: 02 9623 2847
Fax: 02 9623 1573

Institutu Mary MacKillop - Bekora, Dili Timur, Timor Lorosae:
New larger premises now located in Bekora.
PO Box 427, Dili, East Timor (via Darwin)

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