Australia accused of bullying East Timor over oil field treaty

Friday, January 13, 2006

The "Timor Gap" area has been in dispute since 1972

The Australian Federal Government has been accused of bullying and short-changing the tiny nation of East Timor (Timor-Leste). Australia and East Timor have signed a treaty to share revenue from the Greater Sunrise energy field located in the Timor Sea. The treaty means each country gets half the revenue from the area - but any further negotiations on maritime boundaries will be postponed for up to 50 years.

The treaty, signed in Sydney on January 12th was attended by Australian Prime Minister John Howard and his East Timorese counterpart Mari Alkatiri. The treaty is the culmination of long-running negotiations and bitter disputes between the two countries on how to split the $40 billion resource.

East Timorese Prime Minister Dr Mari Alkatiri said the landmark agreement would provide a major boost to the nation's revenues - while protecting its territorial sovereignty. "I am confident this is for the benefit of the people," he said. Dr Alkatiri anticipated production may be up to 10 years away.

However, an Australian lobby group has vehemently attacked the failure to address, what they say, the bigger and more important issue of permanent maritime boundaries. Timor Sea Justice Campaign (TSJC) spokesman Tom Clarke says the Australia government did not respect conventional maritime boundaries. He says the postponed decision on maritime boundaries means East Timor will not be able to gain control of their territory.

"The Australian Government has basically bullied the poorest country in Asia into postponing its claim to sovereignty," said Mr Clarke. "So a permanent maritime boundary will not be established under this deal - they're basically leaving that issue for future generations to negotiate."

Other non-government organisations (NGO's) have protested about Australia's exploitation in the disputed area. A communiqué signed by 12 East Timor NGO's stated that the maritime frontier with Australia should have been established first, before the exploration of resources began.

Australian energy giant Woodside Petroleum, operator of the Greater Sunrise project, has given no indication as to when the development might go ahead.

The nation of East Timor (Timor-Leste) achieved full independence from Indonesia in May, 2002.

Company spokesman Roger Martin said there were still a few steps to go before the Greater Sunrise joint venture partners would be making any decisions on how to proceed.

Prime Minister John Howard believes the deal is a fair and just outcome and will strengthen relations between the two countries. "It means that the very close relationship between our two countries can not only continue but become even closer," he said.

But Tom Clarke (TSJC) has described the deal as a "stop gap, band-aid solution" - because nothing had been settled on the issue of maritime boundaries. "It simply postpones the real issues of sovereignty for half a century," he said. Mr Clarke said East Timor clearly had more claim over the energy field than Australia.

"The Australian Government has continually and blatantly refused to abide by International Law. Instead, it has bullied the poorest country in Asia into a series of dodgy resource sharing deals, to take billions of dollars that simply do not belong to us," he said.

The campaigners claim the deal marks another sad chapter of Australian foreign policy betrayal, saying the Howard Government is determined to increase Australia's reputation as a bully in the region. "This really should have been a very simple matter of just drawing a line half way between two coastlines, but once again the greed and self-interest of our, the Australian Government, has brought shame to all Australians who believe in a fair go," Mr Clarke said.