Subject: East Timor seeks NZ help in oil row with Australia

The Dominion Post (Wellington, New Zealand)

May 1, 2004, Saturday

East Timor seeks NZ help in oil row with Australia


EAST TIMOR is calling on New Zealand to help it settle its argument with Australia over control of huge offshore oil and gas fields in the Timor Sea.

East Timor ambassador Jorge Teme said he would like New Zealand to help to settle its maritime boundary issue.

It wants the boundary set midway between Australia and East Timor, which would give it control of oil and gas fields with estimated reserves of $ 35 billion. Australia says the fields are on its continental shelf and it should be mostly theirs.

But the New Zealand Government is reluctant to get involved.

A spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister Phil Goff said New Zealand was keeping itself appraised but it was an issue that Australia and East Timor needed to work through together.

In an interview published in Portugal, East Timor President Xanana Gusmao accused Australia of robbing his impoverished country of badly needed revenues. He also accused Australia of acting in bad faith by withdrawing from the jurisdiction of the international law of the sea tribunal, which could arbitrate on the issue.

It had also insisted negotiations could only be held every six months.

Mr Teme said that without access to the international court it could take 10 years to resolve, when East Timor was in desperate need for money to develop its own economy.

"We only want what is our right and what belongs to us."

There was growing support from people in Australia, and the ambassador urged New Zealand to get involved as well. He also called on New Zealand members of Parliament to write to the Australian Government, as 53 United States senators had done.

Australian high commissioner Allan Hawke said Australia had a long-standing and valid claim to its continental shelf and even if the maritime boundary was set as East Timor wanted it, a lot of the oil would still be in Australia's area.

Interim agreement provided for Timor to get 90 per cent of petroleum revenues and Australia had also provided $ 235 million in aid to East Timor since 1999. Australia had withdrawn from international court jurisdiction because it was better for parties to set maritime boundaries by negotiation rather than litigation, he said.

Victoria University's director of policy studies, Andrew Ladley, the United Nations legal adviser in East Timor during its transition from Indonesia rule, said it was hard to understand why Australia was acting as it was, why it had withdrawn from the international tribunal and why it was only willing to meet with East Timor twice a year on the issue.

Government backbencher Matt Robson said he would push for the Government to take up the cause because Australia's approach was "out and out imperialism. It is using its weight to get the best advantage for itself to the disadvantage of East Timor".

Catholic aid agency Caritas has asked Mr Goff to call on the Australian Government to negotiate in good faith on a fair boundary.

"New Zealand has influence with Australia . . . and we should be making our views known as strongly as possible. Timor is only seeking what is fair under international law."

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