|Subject: AGE: New Timor treaty 'a failure'
New Timor treaty 'a failure'
April 21, 2007
A FORMER senior Australian Government negotiator has criticised a controversial new treaty between Australia and East Timor that fails to permanently establish a maritime boundary between the two countries.
Andrew Serdy, a former executive officer in sea law in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, said the Timor Sea treaty ratified in February failed to deal with resources other than petroleum and did not establish a maritime boundary.
East Timor is the only nation with which Australia has not finalised its maritime boundaries. There has been a long-running dispute between the two countries over the gas and oil deposits in the Timor Sea.
Mr Serdy, who was on Australia's negotiating team for a 2003 treaty with East Timor, also told Federal Parliament's joint standing committee on treaties that Australia's handling of the most recent agreement was "suggestive of a persistent policy failure".
Now a lecturer in maritime law at Southampton University in Britain, Mr Serdy said that negotiations for the treaty began in 2004 with the aim of establishing a permanent boundary, as is East Timor's right under international law.
East Timor had insisted on negotiations for a permanent boundary, "a course of action to which Australia agreed with markedly less enthusiasm that its previous practice (with other nations) would have led one to expect," he wrote.
"There is still ample room for disagreement and dispute between the two countries over any non-petroleum deposits that might subsequently be found on or under the seabed."
Under the new treaty, which took nearly two years to negotiate, East Timor has agreed to forgo claims to a permanent maritime boundary for 50 years in return for an equal share of revenue from the disputed Greater Sunrise gas field. The deal is worth billions to the impoverished nation and is a big improvement on its previous position.
But the treaty precludes East Timor from pursuing claims against Australia for any other gas and oilfields in the Timor Sea. Nor can it take legal action against Australia in any disputes over resources.
Previously, East Timor had claimed that most of the gas and oil deposits being exploited by Australia actually belonged to it if a permanent boundary was established at the median distance between the two countries.
Australia has consistently rejected this view. In 2002 it withdrew recognition of the maritime boundary jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice, leaving East Timor no avenue to pursue its claim.
Other submissions to the committee are critical of Foreign Minister Alexander Downer's decision to invoke a rarely used "national interest exemption" to bring the treaty into force in February, preventing the usual scrutiny by Parliament.
Academics Clinton Fernandes, from the University of NSW, and Scott Burchill, from Deakin University, wrote in their submission that although details of the treaty were agreed in January 2006, Mr Downer did not table the report in Parliament until February this year.
Mr Downer said the exemption was required to bring the treaty into force before elections in East Timor. However, Dr Fernandes and Dr Burchill said that Mr Downer acted without good reason and had prevented proper scrutiny of the treaty.
Australia has come under international pressure to resolve the dispute in recent years. In 2005, 17 senior US politicians wrote to the Government seeking an urgent resolution of the issue, with revenue from oil and gas fields close to East Timor to be held in a special account.