It’s time to draw the line: justice in the Timor Sea

Susan Connelly RSJ

Susan Connelly RSJ

It is amazing that Australian tax-payers’ money is being used to fight a small neighbour over where the fence-line should be. And it’s a bit of a laugh that with all the talk about “border protection”, there isn’t a border between Australia and Timor, says Josephite Sister Susan Connelly.

BY Susan Connelly RSJ*

If you own a home, you know how important the fence-line is. Even if there’s no actual fence, neighbours are better off knowing where the line is, so that there is no dispute about who owns what.

It’s puzzling to find that there is no boundary, no fence-line, between Australia and East Timor (Timor-Leste). No boundary! Who’s supposed to know who owns the oil and the gas under the sea?

The saga of how this unfortunate situation came about is not a pretty one. And up until now, both major political parties have had similar policies concerning it.

So many Australians are generous friends to the Timorese people, and it’s not hard to understand why. In World War II, the Timorese were the great friends of the 700 Australian soldiers who were there. Our men wouldn’t have stood a chance against the thousands of Japanese military if it wasn’t for the Timorese.

Australia agreed on a boundary in the Timor Sea with Indonesia in 1972. Timor was then under the control of Portugal which would have nothing to do with the setting of boundaries. So there was no border between Australia and Timor. The part where it should have been was left blank, and became known as the “Timor Gap”.

Source: Maritime Boundary Office, Timor-Leste Click on image to see larger version

Source: Maritime Boundary Office, Timor-Leste
Click on image to see larger version

When Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975, Australia did not help the Timorese. Our leaders had already decided that it was best for Timor to be under the control of Indonesia. In that way, they said, it would be easier for Australia to cut deals about the oil and gas in the Timor Sea. And so it was. In 1989, Indonesia and Australia signed the “Timor Gap Treaty”, which concerned the area of the Timor Sea down to half-way between Australia and Timor. We agreed with Indonesia to split the oil and gas resources of this area 50/50.

In 1999 Australia went in to help after the Timorese had bravely voted to be free of Indonesia. The “Timor Gap Treaty” was re-negotiated with the new nation of Timor-Leste as the “Timor Sea Treaty”. Australia got 10 per cent and Timor got 90 per cent. We were told this was “generous”, but it doesn’t seem too generous when you realise that the whole lot is all on Timor’s side of the half-way line.

Unfortunately, just before this Treaty was signed, Australia quietly withdrew from the two international bodies which oversee boundary disputes. The whole process was left without an umpire.

In 2006, Timor-Leste then signed a Treaty with Australia over the resources of a rich field named “Greater Sunrise”, which again, is all on Timor’s side of the Timor Sea. The agreement was that Timor could have 50 per cent of the revenue, and Australia 50 per cent, on condition that Timor did not even mention the boundary, the fence-line, for 50 years, until 2056.

But Australia had bugged the Timorese government offices before the negotiations, so that listening in, Australia had access to private and important information about how the Timorese would conduct the talks and on what they would agree. The bugging operation was carried out by Australian agencies using aid money sent to help the Timorese after the destruction of 1999.

A Treaty agreed on in such circumstances is very suspect indeed, and the Timorese believe that Australia did not act in good faith, as do many Australians. So the Timorese are saying they want the boundary agreed on now, not in 50 years time. And they want it agreed in a fair and transparent manner, so that each side can know with certainty which resources are theirs and which belong to their neighbour.

In 2016 the Timorese Prime Minister formally asked the Australian Prime Minister for discussions to begin on the matter. Unfortunately, the Australian government has declined this request.

Therefore, the Timorese government has introduced a United Nations “compulsory conciliation” process. This means that five commissioners are appointed to consider the matter for 12 months. Regrettably, Australia has indicated that it will try to stop the commission from proceeding by arguing that it doesn’t have jurisdiction. This process is an embarrassment for Australians. It is the first time any nation has taken another nation through this process over sea boundaries.

If no agreement is reached, the commissioners will provide a report and recommendations to the United Nations Secretary-General and the Australian government will be required to negotiate in good faith on the basis of that report.

To avoid this protracted and expensive process, Australia could agree at any time to commence negotiations with Timor-Leste on maritime boundaries. The Labor Party changed its policy last year, and now agrees that such negotiations should take place.

It is amazing that Australian tax-payers’ money is being used to fight a small neighbour over where the fence-line should be. And it’s a bit of a laugh that with all the talk about “border protection”, there isn’t a border between Australia and Timor! That’s all that’s needed – a fair border.

This is about justice, not charity. The Timorese aren’t asking for handouts. They just want to decide on a border, for stability and security. And Australians have the same right.

Where’s the border? It’s time to DRAW THE LINE.

For more information check out the Timor Sea Forum, the Timor Sea Justice Campaign and the Maritime Boundaries Office Timor-Leste.

* Susan Connelly is a Sister of St Joseph and has taught in Catholic and State schools. She has worked with the people of East Timor and is particularly concerned about the injustices suffered by the West Papuan people, and with Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers.

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The Good Oil, June 21, 2016. If you would like to republish this article, please contact the editor.

15 Responses to “It’s time to draw the line: justice in the Timor Sea”

  1. thankyou for your piece on East Timor –I believe that Australia was very slow to do anything at all to help tehpeople of Timor when the Indonesian Army attacked these people who simply wanted to live peacfully in their own land with the sunrise oil field providing a way to improve their prosperity..It took Australia a long time to send troops to Timor -John Howard was fored to send the troops when the UN interveined-We have displayed little help or mercy to East Timor -We are still arguing with them at teh United Nations

  2. Margaret Cusack says:

    Dear Susan,
    This is a thoroughly researched and passionate article which should be known more widely so that justice may be done to such vulnerable and beautiful people as the people from Timor Leste. Thank you!

  3. Eugennie Levinson says:

    Thank you Susan for this very informative and enlightening article. Let’s hope justice prevails for the people of Timor-Leste. Keep up the good fight!

  4. Getrudes Silva says:

    Sister Susan, again hunting for justice… Viva Timor Leste… Freedom West Papua…

  5. Kate owens says:

    Great article Susan… Keep up the good fight!

  6. Rita Hayes says:

    Many thanks Susan, the more people who can be informed of this unjust situation the better chance there is of public pressure being exerted on our Government. Sadly, as is the case with our Government’s treatment of Refugees and Asylum Seekers the true situation is masked by misleading political ‘scare’ mongering. Keep up the good fight on behalf of our great friends, the Timorese people, and for our self-respect as a nation.

  7. Irene Cracknell OAM JP says:

    Thank you Sister Susan Connelly – very articulate article, the only reason I can think of for successive Australian Governments to continue with this immorality is $$$$

  8. Aurora Pires says:

    Thanks Sr Susan.

  9. Theo Glockemann OAM says:

    Well done Susan. This whole thing stinks! We (Australia) are acting as bully boys !

  10. Stephen John Langford says:

    Very good indeed… deserves widest possible circulation. Suggest send copy to Phillip Adams. Get it into Green Left Weekly? Try the mass circulation dailies before that. Even the Monthly. All the best, S

  11. Stephen John Langford says:

    Very good… I suggest submit it to Green Left Weekly. No, seriously. But before you do that, have you tried the mainstream media? It is worth getting it ‘out there’ any way you can… it is a very good article and people need to know.

  12. Thanks for these great comments. There has been a slight change in the article, so if you have printed it, you might be better to do it again. The Australian government has, in fact, appointed two commissioners, but has indicated that it will try to stop the commission from proceeding by arguing that it doesn’t have jurisdiction.

  13. Thank you Sister Susan. I have shared the article.

    It is time to draw the line and the time is now. (Actually, several years ago).

  14. Cheryl Barnes says:

    Great article. Have printed out for friends and family to read.

  15. Marie Casamento says:

    Susan thank you for giving a transparent view of the history of these circumstances concerning boundaries. Someone once said ‘ a nation is not only judged by its highest point of achievement but also about its lowest and the distance between the two parts’. It is indeed time to draw the line. Marie Casamento

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