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NGOs Urge Howard to Play Fair in Boundary Talks with East Timor

100 Groups Worldwide Call for Respect for Timor’s Sovereignty and Resources

For Immediate Release

Contact: John M. Miller, 718-596-7668

November 7, 2003 - A global coalition of non-governmental organizations today wrote Prime Minister John Howard of Australia urging his government to set a firm timetable for establishing a permanent maritime boundary between East Timor and Australia in upcoming negotiations.

“Throughout these negotiations, East Timor should be treated fairly and as a sovereign nation, with the same rights as Australia,” the letter says.

The letter, signed by representatives of over 100 NGOs from 19 countries, was sent as the governments of Australia and East Timor prepare to begin preliminary talks on the maritime boundary on November 10. The Howard government has thus far declined to accept a timetable or an end date for resolving the issue, despite repeated requests from the government of East Timor.

“At stake in these negotiations are East Timor's rights as an independent nation to establish national boundaries and to benefit from its own resources. This is indeed a test of Australia’s respect for East Timor’s right to genuine self-determination,” said John M. Miller of the East Timor Action Network, which coordinated the letter. “The world will judge Australia based on whether it tries to bully East Timor or treats it fairly and as a sovereign equal in these negotiations.”

The letter states that under current international legal principles, “the median line (half way between the coastlines of two countries) is the standard way to establish maritime exclusive economic zone (EEZ) boundaries when two countries are closer than 400 nautical miles to each other. If this international principle were applied, many of the oil and gas fields lying outside the Joint Petroleum Development Area [JPDA] but north of the median line would fall within East Timor's EEZ….”

Recognition of East Timor's right to these resources could mean as much as $30 billion in revenue over three decades for East Timor, the poorest country in Asia.

The letter says, “We have been troubled by your government's callous disregard for East Timor's sovereignty and rights, which seems contrary to the deep concern for East Timor expressed by so many Australians.” It warns that Australia “risks squandering the international goodwill Australia established since 1999," and that “Australia's own long-term national interests are best served by a stable and prosperous East Timor....”

“Without public pressure, Australia profits by waiting out the exhaustion of oil and natural gas resources before agreeing to a boundary, taking revenue rightfully belonging to East Timor. This is revenue that can help East Timor become independent of foreign donors and escape from dire poverty as Southeast Asia’s poorest country,” said Miller.

Several ‘interim’ resource-sharing agreements have been signed between Australia and East Timor. These agreements are derived from the illegal 1989 Timor Gap Treaty between Australia and Indonesia, which heavily favored Australia. Under these interim agreements, the largest amounts of what should be East Timor’s petroleum resources are excluded from the JPDA. These include the bulk of the Greater Sunrise field and the nearly-depleted Laminaria-Corallina field. Together they contain more petroleum than the Bayu Undan field, which is within the JPDA. Australia has taken possession of these resources outside the JPDA, although both countries claim them, and they would belong to East Timor under current international principles. Once a permanent boundary is established these agreements would have to be renegotiated.

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