Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Hey, Man, It's All About the Oil, Man 

The scenario: a rich, English-speaking country leads a coalition of like-minded nations on a military mission to secure the independence of an oil-rich country and liberate it from an oppressive regime...

OK, OK. Actually, the parallel I'm trying to draw is weak at best. I'm invoking the case of Australia and East Timor. In case you missed this one, here's the scoop: Indonesia invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975. The East Timorese generally objected, and some resistance groups began fighting back. A series of horrifying repressions, complete with famine, mass killings and rape, ensued. In 1998, after the Suharto government fell, the new Indonesian leader shocked his army by bowing to international pressure and allowing an East Timorese referendum on independence.

The referendum passed, but pro-Indonesian militias (and the Indonesian military) immediately embarked upon some good old-fashioned horrifying repression, which the Indonesian government refused to stop. Finally, President Clinton used the tool-of-the-running-dog-imperialists IMF as a lever to coerce the Indonesians into allowing a UN force, led by Australia, to enter East Timor and stabilize the security environment.

Hooray for multilateral institutions! Hooray for aggressive pursuit of human rights! Right? Er, maybe not, as reported by the BBC today:
East Timor is at risk of becoming a failed state, just two years after winning independence, Oxfam has warned.

It claims Australia is hampering East Timor's finances by laying claim to the lion's share of Timor Sea oil fields.

While Australia has been a "generous donor" it has actually reaped 10 times more in revenues from East Timor than it has given since 1999, Oxfam added.

Australia makes £1m ($1.7m) a day from a temporary deal granting access to two thirds of the oil fields, Oxfam said.

But, the charity argued, if a maritime boundary were set up between the two countries according to international law it would deliver "most, if not all" of these resources to East Timor...

James Ensor, Oxfam Community Aid Abroad's director of public policy said: "The vast oil and gas reserves of the Timor Sea provide East Timor with a window of opportunity for providing for its people and future generations.

"However, Australia is not displaying good faith in its current negotiations with our neighbour."
[Incidentally, Oxfam's James Ensor is not the 20th-Century painter James Ensor, at least not as far as I know...]

It's not just conspiracy theorists obsessed with oil who can find a good way to put this story to bad use. Osama bin Laden has described Australia's efforts to help end the mass murder in East Timor as "despicable" and has explicitly threatened retaliation against Australia.

I'm bothering telling you all of this because it points to the importance of following through on selling foreign policy initiatives to a world audience, even when the UN has granted such a policy an aura of legitimacy. More on this topic soon.

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