ISSN #1088-8136

Vol. 10, No 1.
Spring 2004


Spring 2004 Home

Australia Continues to Steal East Timor’s Sea Resources

More Pressure Needed to Stop U.S.-TNI Ties

Justice . . . When?

Announcing ETAN Lobby Days June 6-8, 2004, Washington, DC

About East Timor and ETAN

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Australia Continues to Steal East Timor’s Sea Resources

by John M. Miller

A round of sea boundary negotiations between Australia and East Timor ended in April with no progress. At stake are billions of dollars of revenue from underwater petroleum and natural gas reserves, as well as East Timor’s ability to fully control its territory and resources. The status quo favors Australia, which stands to gain almost two-thirds of the revenue under current arrangements.

Since 1999, Australia has earned over a billion dollars in oil and gas revenues from the Laminaria-Corallina fields, which are twice as close to East Timor than to Australia. Not a cent of revenue from these fields has gone to East Timor. These and other disputed fields, including the most lucrative Greater Sunrise field which Australia insists is 82% its own, would belong to East Timor under a boundary settlement that followed current international law.

East Timor’s Maritime Boundary Law, based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, claims a 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone in all directions. When claims overlap, as is the case with East Timor and Australia, a permanent maritime boundary is typically a median line half-way between their coastlines.

Just two months before East Timor’s May 2002 independence, Australia quietly gave formal notice that it was withdrawing from all binding international mechanisms used to settle maritime boundary disputes. This prevents East Timor from taking Australia to these forums to contest Australia’s control over the disputed seabed.

For such reasons, ETAN coordinated a letter last fall to the Australian government. Signed by 100 organizations from 19 countries, the letter declared, “We have been troubled by your government’s callous disregard for East Timor’s sovereignty and rights.” It warned that Canberra “risks squandering the international goodwill Australia established since 1999.”

East Timorese launch three days of protest in front of Australian embassy in Dili in lead up to boundary talks. Photo by Charles Scheiner. For more info click here.

More recently, 53 members of the U.S. House of Representatives — with encouragement from ETAN activists — urged Australia’s prime minister in early March to “move seriously and expeditiously in negotiations with East Timor to establish a fair, permanent maritime boundary and an equitable sharing of oil and gas resources in the Timor Sea.”

The congressional letter, initiated by Representative Barney Frank (D-MA), urged Australia to hold talks monthly in order to resolve the issue within three to five years rather than the semi-annual meetings Australia is insisting on. It urged that any revenue earned from disputed areas be held in escrow until the resolution of the boundary issue. The letter was cited several times when the Australian parliament in March debated ratification of the Greater Sunrise Unitisation Agreement, an “interim” revenue sharing arrangement, which could be renegotiated after a permanent boundary is established.

Receiving its full entitlement of revenue would go a long way to helping East Timor alleviate its great poverty and decrease its dependence on international donors. A recent statement by groups in East Timor called the world’s newest country “the largest international donor to Australia. The relatively small amounts you spend to help us do not compare with the amount you are stealing from our resource birthright.”

More than 225 people have faxed letters to the Australian Embassy in Washington via ETAN’s web site. You can join them by going to