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Congress Urges Expeditious Talks on Permanent Maritime Boundary for East Timor

Calls on Australia to Create Trust Fund for Disputed Revenue

Contact: John M. Miller, ETAN, 718-596-7668; 917-690-4391 (cell)
Charles Scheiner 914-831-1098

March 4, 2005 -- Senior U.S. senators and representatives today urged “Australia to move quickly and seriously to establish a fair, permanent maritime boundary with Timor-Leste,” as the two countries prepared to resume negotiations on the issue.

A letter to Australian Prime Minister John Howard signed by 17 members of both chambers of Congress, many in leadership positions and sitting on important committees, was sent today. The signers, who have long been concerned with Timor-Leste (also known as East Timor), urged that “any revenue from disputed areas on Timor-Leste's side of the median line but outside the Joint Petroleum Development Area be held in escrow,” pending a settlement.

“An equitable sharing of oil and gas revenues would enable Timor-Leste to provide better health care and other essential services to its citizens. Such equitable sharing of revenue is not a question of charity; rather it is a matter of self-determination, sovereignty and Timor-Leste's future,” the members of Congress wrote.

The letter urged Australia, “to participate in international legal mechanisms for arbitration of maritime boundary disputes,” and expressed special concern about “reports of scores of recent preventable deaths in Timor-Leste that have resulted from chronic food shortages and outbreaks of dengue hemorrhagic fever.”

"An Australian official recently called for delaying resolution of the maritime boundary for up to 99 years. The East Timorese are unlikely to be that patient,” said Karen Orenstein, Washington Coordinator of the East Timor Action Network. “The petroleum revenue is necessary for the people of the new nation. More importantly, East Timor's independence will not be fully realized until its boundaries, both land and sea, are defined and accepted by its neighbors.”

Representative Barney Frank (D-MA) and Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) initiated the letter. The full text of the letter can be found below.

Among the signatures on the letter are Representatives Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Democratic Leader of the House of Representatives; Tom Lantos (D-CA), Ranking Member of the International Relations Committee; Chris Smith (R-NJ), Vice-Chairperson of the International Relations Committee; Eni Faleomavaega (D-AS), Ranking Member of the International Relations Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific; Nita Lowey (D-NY), Ranking Member of the Appropriations Foreign Operations Subcommittee; Fortney Pete Stark (D-CA) and Jim McDermott (D-WA), senior members of the Ways and Means Committee (with jurisdiction over the U.S.-Australia Free Trade Agreement). Senators signing the letter include Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Ranking Member of the Appropriations Foreign Operations Subcommittee; James Jeffords (I-VT) and Ron Wyden (D-OR), members of the Finance Committee (with jurisdiction over the U.S.-Australia Free Trade Agreement); and Tom Harkin, senior member of the Appropriations Committee.

The third round of talks is scheduled for Canberra on March 7-9.

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Background

Substantial oil and natural gas deposits lie under the Timor Sea between Australia and East Timor. Which country will be the recipient of tens of billions of dollars of revenue is contingent on a permanent boundary agreement.

The economic future of East Timor depends on where the Timor Sea boundary with Australia is drawn. Since East Timor’s independence referendum in 1999, the Australian government has taken in approximately two billion Australian dollars in revenue from oil fields much closer to East Timor than to Australia. Under current international legal principles, these fields belong to East Timor. (Larger fields, yet to be developed, are also claimed by both countries.)

After two years of stalling, Australia finally sat down at the negotiating table in April 2004. Those and subsequent talks last fall went nowhere because Australia refused to discuss the 60 percent of East Timor’s legal entitlement claimed by Australia on the basis of prior occupation stemming from illegal agreements with Indonesia, the former occupier of East Timor.

In October 2002, East Timor enacted a Maritime Boundary Law, claiming a 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone in all directions, based on the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Where neighboring claims overlap, as is the case with East Timor and Australia, countries must negotiate a boundary, usually halfway between their coastlines. The Australian government preemptively withdrew from the maritime boundary jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice and the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea two months before East Timor's independence, leaving the new republic with no legal recourse if negotiations are protracted or unsuccessful, as they have been thus far.

In a briefing last month, an Australian Foreign Affairs official said, “Our position is that the permanent boundaries should be put off for quite some considerable time.” When asked how long, he replied “You will recall that this was often talked about as the Hong Kong solution and I think the Hong Kong years were ninety-nine, I believe. So it’s certainly putting it off for quite some considerable time.”

Last year, the Senate Appropriations Committee stated that it “again encourage[d] all parties to negotiate in good faith in accordance with international legal principles.” Last July, while the House of Representatives debated the U.S.-Australia Free Trade Agreement, Representatives Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), James McGovern (D-MA) and Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) urged Australia to expeditiously negotiate a permanent maritime boundary with Timor. In March 2004, more than four-dozen representatives expressed the hope that “both governments will agree to a legal process for an impartial resolution if the boundary dispute cannot be settled by negotiation."

East Timor Action Network/U.S. has supported human dignity for the people of East Timor since 1991. ETAN advocates for human rights (including national and women’s rights), democracy, sustainable development, and social, legal and economic justice.

For more information see http://www.etan.org/issues/tsea.htm

Plain facts about Australia & East Timor’s Maritime Boundary (also PDF version)


March 4, 2005

The Honorable John Howard
Office of the Australian Prime Minister
3-5 National Circuit
Barton, ACT 2600
AUSTRALIA

Dear Mr. Prime Minister,

As members of the United States Senate and House of Representatives who have long supported independence and development for the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, we would like to share our concerns regarding the upcoming negotiations between your country and Timor-Leste on economic and territorial rights in the Timor Sea.

We urge Australia to move quickly and seriously to establish a fair, permanent maritime boundary with Timor-Leste, based on the rule of law and respect for the sovereignty of both nations. Until such a settlement is reached, we would urge that any revenue from disputed areas on Timor-Leste's side of the median line but outside the Joint Petroleum Development Area be held in escrow. We hope that the temporary suspension of the development of the Greater Sunrise field, which has eased pressure from oil companies for a quick fix, will serve as a catalyst for a more thorough, deliberate and empathetic resolution of the territorial dispute.

Although Timor-Leste has been free of Indonesian military occupation since 1999, its citizens continue to struggle against illiteracy, poverty, preventable disease and a lack of basic services. We are especially concerned by reports of scores of recent preventable deaths in Timor-Leste that have resulted from chronic food shortages and outbreaks of dengue hemorrhagic fever. An equitable sharing of oil and gas revenues would enable Timor-Leste to provide better health care and other essential services to its citizens. Such equitable sharing of revenue is not a question of charity; rather it is a matter of self-determination, sovereignty and Timor-Leste's future.

We applaud the fact that Australia has helped Timor-Leste achieve independence and also provided significant humanitarian and reconstruction aid. However, the approximately two billion Australian dollars your government has received in revenues since 1999 from Laminaria-Corallina, fields located twice as close to Timor-Leste, is much larger than the total cost of your generous assistance. We are aware that many East Timorese believe these fields and the revenue generated -- equivalent to about four years of Timor Leste's GDP or one day of Australia's -- as well as most or all of Greater Sunrise should belong to Timor-Leste. We urge your government to participate in international legal mechanisms for arbitration of maritime boundary disputes, which should include the issue of control of resource development outside the interim Joint Petroleum Development Area.

We admire your country's leadership in 1999 in helping to free the people of Timor-Leste from the political oppression under which they suffered for so long. We hope these maritime boundary negotiations will move fairly and expeditiously, and that your country will once again play a leading role in helping the people of Timor-Leste to be free, this time from the oppression of poverty that is preventing them from progressing as one of the world's newest democracies.

Thank you for your consideration.

With best regards,

Senator Jack Reed

Senator James M. Jeffords

Senator Patrick J. Leahy

Senator Edward M. Kennedy

Senator Tom Harkin

Senator Ron Wyden

Rep. Nancy Pelosi

Rep. Christopher H. Smith

Rep. Tom Lantos

Rep. Barney Frank

Rep. Nita M. Lowey

Eni F. H. Faleomavaega

Rep. James P. McGovern

Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy

Rep. Fortney Pete Stark

Rep. Lane Evans

Rep. Jim McDermott

 

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