By Dr George Venturini
(Much of the material in this page is drawn from the work of La’o Hamutuk, the Timor-Leste Institute for Development Monitoring and Analysis, which has monitored and campaigned for Timor-Leste’s rights for two decades. For more detailed information on this and related issues, see www.laohamutuk.org. Current and updated information on the maritime boundary dispute with Australia is at https://www.laohamutuk.org/Oil/Boundary/18ConcilTreaty.htm).
On 13 February 2017 the Australian Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Treaties opened an inquiry into ‘Consequences of termination of the Treaty between Australia and the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste on Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea.’ The Committee had asked for written submissions, with a deadline of 10 March, and was to deliver its report by 30 March. The relevant documents, including the announcement of the inquiry, proposed treaty text, National Interest Analysis, and justification for keeping this action secret (except from Timor-Leste and the oil industry) until it was announced publicly. (Australian Government, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, ‘Consequences of termination of the Treaty between Australia and the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste on Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea’, ATNIA reference:  ATNIA 8 ATNIF reference:  ATNIF 8).
The Parliamentary Committee published submissions to the inquiry from several individuals and organisations on its website.
With one exception, they all supported the total cancellation of the C.M.A.T.S. Treaty and establishing a boundary under international legal principles. The Committee accepted additional submissions after the deadline.
The press highlighted the academics’ assertion that Timor-Leste was acting against its own interests by cancelling C.M.A.T.S., leading to it becoming a ‘failed state’ or ‘aid dependent.’ The Committee had no plans for further hearings. Following the hearing, the Committee received written comments and answers from the same two academics, from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Department of Industry, Innovation & Science.
On 21 March former President José Ramos-Horta called the ‘failed state’ testimony “outrageous … it’s just nonsense.”
On 30 March the Committee issued its report, together with a press release. They supported the pre-termination amendments to C.M.A.T.S. which enable the treaty to be terminated in its entirety, and expressed their “strong view that the maritime boundary dispute should be negotiated bilaterally and in good faith, and commend[ed] both Governments for agreeing to operate by these principles.” Although they agreed with the Committee’s recommendations, the Australian Greens were: “surprised by the Committee’s stated disagreement with the contention in many submissions that Australia behaved oppressively or unfairly towards Timor-Leste in the negotiation of the CMATS Treaty. It is manifestly clear that Australia behaved in a reprehensible fashion towards its fledging neighbour. The Greens would like to place on the record that Australia did not negotiate the CMATS Treaty in good faith, having spied on East Timorese Cabinet discussions regarding the Treaty in 2004. To assert otherwise would be to ignore a wealth of evidence against Australia. (Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, Media release, Report 168, ‘Certain Maritime Arrangements – Timor-Leste’, Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, March 2017 Canberra; Parliament of Australia, Media release, ‘Joint Standing Committee on Treaties’, Report tabled, Issue date: 30 March 2017, ‘Committee endorses bilateral negotiations on permanent maritime boundaries with Timor-Leste’).
Time to Draw the Line is a new documentary film produced to show Australians their government’s shameful history on Timor Sea boundary issues, which was reviewed in Green Left Weekly. (‘New film shows East Timor and Australia’s David versus Goliath fight’, directed by Amanda King and Fabio Cavadini, Green Left Review, 9 February 2017) It was being shown across Australia beginning on 19 February.
In a 14 March interview with Presidential Candidate Dr. Francisco Guterres Lú-Olo, before he was elected to be Timor-Leste’s President from 2017 to 2022, the candidate declare, with reference to the maritime boundary: “… the constitution states that the territory should be decided based on measurement of the sea or land to decide where ours extends to and where another country’s extends to… [T]he international rights which we accept as part of our legal structure will serve as our legal basis, which say that such problems should be resolved through dialogue. Naturally, the President of the Republic will uphold measures that have been taken so far, and I will continue to defend our national sovereignty, our maritime sovereignty, terrestrial and air space, and the sovereignty of the people and our laws, in compliance with international law.
I am a member of the Council for the Delimitation of the Maritime Boundary, hence there are some aspects I cannot discuss. But I want to say that this process is currently on track, and Australia has recently shown its willingness to open negotiations, [which] shows good will from Australia and Timor-Leste in order to find a solution, and I trust the Council for the Delimitation of the Maritime Boundary led by Mr. Kay Rala Xanana Gusmão to accomplish this.”
Prior to his election, The Sydney Morning Herald indicated that Dr. Lú-Olo might be more flexible than other leaders in negotiating with Australia about Greater Sunrise, but his campaign responded that his position was identical to that of the current government. (L. Murdoch, ‘Frontrunner for East Timor presidency offers Australia hope on oil fields deal’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 20 March 2017).
As Timorese were casting their ballots on 20 March, the three-man arbitration panel formed to decide the case initiated by Timor-Leste nearly four years earlier issued an order terminating the case, responding to letters it had received from Timor-Leste and Australia in January 2017. (P.C.A. Case No. 2013-16, In the matter of the arbitration under the Timor Sea Treaty of 20 May 2002 – between – the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste and the Commonwealth of Australia, Termination Order, Arbitral Tribunal: Professor Tullio Treves (Chairman) Professor W. Michael Reisman Lord Collins of Mapesbury PC, FBA, Registry: The Permanent Court of Arbitration, 20 March 2017).
On 3 April the Conciliation Commission issued a press release announcing that the two countries’ delegations had held a series of confidential meetings in Washington the previous week. The Commission and both parties agreed that the meetings were productive, and that there would be further meetings during 2017 in the ‘marathon’ process.
On 10 April C.M.A.T.S. became permanently and completely null and void.
On 27 April the LNG platform for the Australian Browse project sailed from the Samsung Geojy shipyard in South Korea. The same shipyard was building the floating LNG plant for Shell’s Prelude project, the “world’s biggest ever vessel”, which would have been shipped between July and September and would have began production in 2018. If everything went smoothly, the project could have changed the debate around how to liquefy Sunrise gas.
In early May Dr. José Ramos-Horta visited Australia, and in an interview with the A.B.C. he called on Australia to abandon ‘unsubstantiated’ claim in Timor Sea. Soon thereafter, The Saturday Paper published an opinion piece by H. McDonald: ‘Settling the maritime borders with Timor-Leste’, The Saturday Paper, 20-26 May 2017).
On 20 May the Timor Sea Justice Campaign lamented that ‘Fifteen years after Independence, East Timor is still waiting for Australia to set Permanent Maritime Boundaries’. T.S.J.C. brought ‘fair minded Australians’ to Canberra to protest and lobby Parliament on 14 June, with a speech by Senator Xenophon (Speech by Independent Australian Senator Nick Xenophon Timor Sea Justice Campaign Rally outside Parliament House, Canberra 14 June 2017) and news coverage of Bernard Collaery’s call for a Senate inquiry. (L. Martin, ‘Lawyer for Timor spy demands inquiry’, Breaking News, 14 June 2017) On the same day opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Senator Penny Wong began a visit to Dili to explore ‘resetting ties’ with Timor-Leste’s leaders. (Labor’s Wong bound for East Timor’, Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong will meet East Timorese leaders and senior ministers during her two-day visit to Dili, Australian Associated Press, 14 June 2017).
The Conciliation Commission hosted another round of ‘productive’ meetings in Copenhagen during the first week of June, stating in a press release that “The Commission continues to believe that, with the goodwill we see from both governments, a comprehensive resolution of this dispute is possible.” They would meet again weeks later. (P.C.A., ‘Conciliation between the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste and the Commonwealth of Australia, Timor-Leste and Australia Continue Discussions with Conciliation Committee on Maritime Boundary Proceedings’, Copenhagen, 12 June 2017)
On 1 June Australian Professor Vivian Louis Forbes published a long article on myths, perceptions and reality to support Australia’s continental shelf argument. (V. L. Forbes, ‘Myths, Perceptions and Reality: The Allocation of Marine Resources in the Arafura and Timor Seas – Part One’, Future Directions International, 1 June 2017).
In July the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Armed Services expressed its belief “that negotiations between Australia and Timor-Leste to establish permanent maritime boundaries send a positive signal to other states in the region regarding adherence to a rules-based international order. A mutually agreed upon resolution could serve as an example for resolving other disputes peacefully…” The U.S.-based East Timor Action Network (ETAN) lauded the House action. (‘U.S. Congress supports Timor-Leste’s right to a fair maritime boundary with Australia’, 1 August 2017).
Timor-Leste elected a new Parliament on 23 July. All parties agreed that Xanana Gusmão should continue to lead the maritime boundary negotiations. President Lu-Olu confirmed this in a televised address on 21 August.
Building on years of research, Professor Kim McGrath of Swinburne University, Melbourne published the book Crossing the Line, Australia’s Secret History in the Timor Sea in August (Black Inc. Redback, Melbourne 2017). The publisher described the work as ‘a long-overdue exposé of the most shameful episode in recent Australian history.’ Delegations from Timor-Leste and Australia held another round of meetings with the Conciliation Commission on 24-28 July in Singapore. All parties found the meetings ‘constructive,’ but they said that ‘difficult issues remain’ and the process will probably not finish by 19 September as previously expected. “The Commission expects to conclude its substantive discussions with the Parties by October of this year, after which it will proceed to issue its report.”
Another round of talks was scheduled for Copenhagen from 28 August and 1 September; that provided a reason to delay swearing in Timor-Leste’s newly-elected Parliament and Government until 5 September.
Continued Saturday – The spying on Timor-Leste case … et cetera (part 7)
Previous instalment – The spying on Timor-Leste case … et cetera (part 5)
Dr. Venturino Giorgio Venturini devoted some seventy years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents. He may be reached at George.firstname.lastname@example.org.
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