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Thursday, June 03, 2004

More on Australia and East Timor 

I've posted before about the curious relationship between Australia and East Timor. Australia led a widely and deservedly praised UN military presence which ended years of oppressive rule of East Timor by Indonesia, but has since come under fire for doing well after doing good (yep: oil).

Bonassus reader and fellow blogger J brought this article from the Independent to my attention:
Lack of funds for health services is common in developing countries but tiny East Timor is a special case. Off its shores lie vast oil and gas reserves that could transform the economic fortunes of the world's youngest nation. Using revenue from the energy deposits, it could develop industries, repair crumbling infrastructure, invest in health and education, and alleviate poverty.

There is one hitch: East Timor's large and affluent neighbour, Australia, claims ownership of two-thirds of the lucrative resources. The riches lie beneath the Timor Sea, the 400-mile stretch of water that divides the two countries, and negotiations on a new maritime boundary have just started.

The outcome, said President Xanana Gusmao, literally spells "life or death" for his homeland. With access to the fuel royalties, East Timor - which recently celebrated its second anniversary of independence - could become self-sufficient. Without them, it will remain trapped in a cycle of poverty, massively reliant on foreign aid. And children like Julmira will keep on dying...

As the diplomatic language sharpens, ordinary East Timorese - who welcomed the Australians as liberating heroes in 1999 - are angry and disappointed. Demonstrations including a hunger strike were staged outside the Australian embassy last month, and graffiti has been scrawled on walls around the potholed capital, accusing Canberra of stealing Dili's oil. Protesters say that, having escaped the yoke of Indonesian occupation, they now face "economic occupation" by Australia.
Interestingly, Australia's behavior on this matter seems to be an active violation of international norms, and has even been tied to some unusual exiting of multilateral institutions by that country:
This is the context in which Australia, the wealthiest nation in the region, is demanding the lion's share of resources in the Timor Sea. It has refused to submit to third-party arbitration; it was no coincidence, many critics believe, that it withdrew from the International Court of Justice and the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea just before East Timor's independence.
Okay, the ICJ withdrawal clearly had nothing to do with Timorese oil (aren't there any newspaper editors in the UK?), but the Law of the Sea case is more plausible on its face. The big objection among US opponents of the Law of the Sea treaty is precisely the question of undersea oil rights. [On a side note, this abrogation of the treaty would appear to be a boon for utopian dreamers hoping to build a floating island paradise, as I've explained here.]

So what's the Australian side of the story?
Australia claims it is being exceedingly generous because it gave East Timor 90 per cent of a so-called "joint petroleum development area" in 2002. But it fails to mention that Greater Sunrise - of which it currently controls 82 per cent - is worth triple that area. Dili is furious that Canberra is already issuing exploration licences close to Greater Sunrise, which remains disputed. The Australian Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, has accused the Dili leadership of using emotional blackmail.

"They've made a very big mistake, thinking that the best way to handle this negotiation is trying to shame Australia, is mounting abuse on our country, accusing us of being bullying and rich and so on, when you consider all we've done for East Timor," he said recently.

"The tactics that are being used by East Timor, a country which we helped to bring to independence and to which we have been enormously generous and supportive over recent years ... are to try to create public controversy in Australia by a lot of emotive criticism."

Questioned about the moral dimensions of the issue, Mr Downer said: "It's a curious principle that if one country is richer than another and the two countries are adjacent, the richer country should cede territory to the poorer country ... on that principle, I suppose the United States should cede Texas to Mexico." No one denies Australia has been supportive of East Timor. It is giving Aus$40m (£15m) in aid this year, and its soldiers have formed the backbone of the UN force that has guaranteed the nation's security. But the money it has spent on financial and military assistance is dwarfed by the revenue it has already received from the Timor Sea.

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