Australia played an instrumental role restoring peace to Timor-Leste following the 1999 independence referendum. The two countries continue to maintain close political ties, but one sticking point threatens to tarnish that legacy of goodwill – oil.
As one of the world’s youngest nations, Timor-Leste is dependent on revenue from natural resources to lift its population out of poverty. It is one of the poorest nations in the world, with half of the population living below the national poverty line.
A key to its development lies in the large oil and gas fields underneath the Timor Sea. The largest of those fields –Greater Sunrise– is estimated to be worth approximately $40 billion.
But just two months before Timor-Leste became an independent nation, Australia withdrew its recognition of the maritime boundary set out by the International Court of Justice. Since then, the Australian government has refused to enter into bilateral negotiations on a permanent maritime boundary. Instead, it has established a series of temporary resource sharing arrangements which short-change Timor-Leste out of billions of dollars.
The synod supports the establishment of permanent maritime boundaries with Timor-Leste. Earlier this year, Dr Mark Zirnsak from the Justice and International Mission unit wrote a letter to Julie Bishop, minister of foreign affairs, on behalf of the synod. He requested that the federal government negotiate permanent maritime boundaries with Timor-Leste.
“The Uniting Church in Australia has been an advocate for, and friend of, the people of Timor-Leste for a long time and wants Timor-Leste to have the resources it needs to be self-sufficient,” Dr Zirnsak wrote.
Dr Zirnsak also expressed concerned at the apparent inconsistency of the Australian government in dealing with Timor-Leste, given that Australia has delimited its maritime boundaries with New Zealand, the Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.
According to international law, the accepted approach when formulating an equitable solution for maritime boundary disputes is to start with a median line. This is the halfway point between two nations. Under the boundaries established by a median line, the Greater Sunrise fields will lie within Timorese territory.
The Timor-Leste government claims it has lost an estimated $6.6 billion in royalties and tax revenue since independence – money that is essential to lift the country out of poverty.
In March, protestors gathered in Melbourne, Sydney, Jakarta, Manila and Kuala Lumpur for a week of international solidarity with the people of Timor-Leste. More than 10,000 Timorese citizens gathered outside Australia’s embassy in Dili and supporters took to social media using the hashtag #HandsOffTimorsOil.
The Timor-Leste government recently called on the UN to resolve the dispute. It informed the Australian government it will launch conciliation proceedings under the UN’s Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). An independent panel will consider the merits of establishing a new boundary and will deliver a report within 12 months.