Subject: IPS: For East Timor, It's a Different Set of Boundary Rules

AUSTRALIA: For East Timor, It's a Different Set of Boundary Rules

Bob Burton

CANBERRA, Mar 16 (IPS) - The Australian government has been accused of hypocrisy in its attempt to draw maritime boundaries with neighbours. While setting a mid-point boundary with New Zealand, after ratifying a treaty, Canberra has refused to adopt the same standard with East Timor where rich oil and gas deposits lie.

Coordinator of the Timor Sea Justice Campaign, Tom Clarke, accused the Australian government of ''breathtaking hypocrisy'' by adopting different standards for different nations.

''It seems that Australia wants to adopt one standard which is consistent with international law to ensure good relations with a developed western country but rejects exactly the same proposal when it is made by East Timor,'' he told IPS.

''It is an appalling attempt by the government to try and bully the region's poorest country into giving up both territory and valuable resources, even though they are entitled to them under international law,'' added Clarke.

Under the United National Convention on the Law of the Sea which Australia and New Zealand are signatories to, both countries are entitled to claim a continental shelf and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) extending 200 nautical miles.

At a hearing of the Joint Committee on Treaties of the Australian parliament on Monday, Canberra submitted a ''national interest analysis'' of the treaty between Australia and New Zealand stating that ''the boundary described in the treaty is a common maritime boundary dividing both the EEZ and continental shelf of the two countries. It is a fair an equitable outcome in accordance with the principles of international law.''

The final treaty, which has been under serious negotiation since 1999, resolves the overlapping claims which the national interest analysis states by ''being divided along the line of equidistance between the nearest points of Australian and New Zealand land territory''.

''The boundaries represent an equitable and fair outcome for Australia...The settling of the maritime boundaries between Australia and New Zealand greatly reduces the potential for future disputes and serves as a model of bilateral co-operation in the region,'' it states.

Appearing before the Senate committee on Monday, William Campbell, the general counsel for international law in the Attorney-General's Department said ''Each delimitation has its own unique circumstances so that what is agreed in one will not necessarily apply in the other. That said the principles underpinning our New Zealand boundary and those we are advancing with East Timor are consistent.'' Campbell stated that the critical issue is the extent of the continental shelf.

It was an argument that bemused the Deputy Chair of the Committee Kim Wilkie, an opposition Labor member of the House of Representatives.

''This committee considered in detail the Timor Sea Treaty where the boundaries were of some issue and we were told that we weren't to apply that particular method (a mid-point boundary) ... Now we are being told that in the case of New Zealand we have applied those same sort of conditions in determining those boundaries. You can't have it both ways,'' he said.

Only last week the Australian government refused to discuss a median line maritime boundary in talks with East Timor. Instead it has proposed that it defer the resolution of a permanent boundary by up to a hundred years while the major oil and gas deposits are exhausted.

Canberra proposed that it would make a three to four billion U.S. dollars one-off payment if East Timor agrees. Critics argue that under the same standard as adopted with New Zealand, East Timor would stand to gain more than 40 billion U.S. dollars of gas and oil royalties.

At the conclusion of three days of talks with East Timor last week, Australia's Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer was upbeat.

''I think we've got the framework of an agreement nutted out; we've got more details still to work through but I think we're making very good progress with East Timor,'' he added.

The chief negotiator for East Timor, Jose Teixeira, was more circumspect stating only that a further round of talks would be held soon.

While the Australian government has endorsed a mid-point boundary with New Zealand as being consistent with international law, in a Feb. 24 briefing for journalists on the Timor sea issues an Australian government official dismissed East Timor's bid for a mid-point boundary as an ''ambit claim''.

Australia has frustrated East Timor's ability to seek arbitration on the maritime boundary by the International Court of Justice by withdrawing from the courts jurisdiction on the issue just two months before East Timor gained independence in May 2002.

In the analysis tended to the Senate committee on the New Zealand treaty, the government stated that the issue of where the boundary of the continental shelf is only relevant where it continues beyond the 200 nautical miles - which a country may claim as its Exclusive Economic Zone. Beyond that, it states, a nation may claim up to a maximum of 350 nautical miles if approved after a submission to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), a United Nations agency responsible for adjudicating international boundaries.

As part of the deal of settling on a mid-point boundary, the Australian government informed the Senate committee that it would ensure New Zealand supports Australia's submission to the CLCS seeking a 350 nautical mile boundary.

Campaigners supporting East Timor's bid for a mid-point sea boundary argue that Australia has a powerful economic incentive for bullying East Timor into settling for less than New Zealand.

''It wants to steal billions of dollars worth of oil and gas that, if international law were to prevail, belongs to the poorest nation in the region,'' Timor Sea Justice Campaign's Clarke said.

While talks were underway early this month in Canberra between Australia and East Timor, Australian businessman Ian Melrose renewed a prime-time television advertising campaign bluntly criticising the Australian government's negotiating position over the boundary.

''The Howard government has stolen two billion Australian dollars (1.57 billion U.S. dollars) in tax revenue from gas and oil royalties which East Timor needs to create a working health system,'' stated the advertisement.

The majority of East Timorese live in rural villages, often isolated and far from medical facilities or hospitals. There are impassable roads during the wet season, electricity is scant and telecommunications are next to non-existent. Curable and preventable diseases are life threatening for most in these circumstances. (END/2005)

[see for transcript of Committee hearing on NZ boundary]

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