Justice for the East Timorese
Most Australians are aware of the advertisements
paid for privately by Ian Melrose during the federal election campaign
calling for justice for the new nation of East Timor. Australia
has been deriving a huge financial windfall at the expense of the
East Timorese from oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea. Br Russell
O'Brien is the force behind an Edmund Rice/Christian Brother initiative
to secure greater justice for the people and new nation of East
Timor. He forwarded to us this address by Sr Susan Connelly from
the Mary MacKillop Institute for East Timorese Studies which explains
the issues in considerable detail. You can find much more useful
information on the www.saveeasttimor.org
Term Consequences of Government Policy
on the Resources of the Timor Sea
POINT has very clearly been made by supporters of the East Timorese
people that the dispute over the resources of the Timor Sea is about
justice, not charity. This is a principle of International Law and
is, of course, enthusiastically accepted by the Australian Government.
spin on this principle is put by the Department of Foreign Affairs
and Trade thus: "It is not appropriate to link East Timor's
economic and social development with requests for Australia to sign
away long-standing sovereign rights in respect of its continental
I agree that the whole matter must be resolved on the basis of
fairness as regards the maritime boundaries in themselves. However,
our topic is the long-term consequences of the present Government
policy, consequences which affect both East Timorese and Australian
What is the present Australian Government Policy? It concerns a
fair and equitable maritime boundary, which has not yet been established.
Our Government agrees to meetings only twice a year, despite East
Timorese requests for more frequent meetings. It says that we settle
disputes by negotiation rather than arbitration, and hence there
is no need for us to be part to the maritime boundary sections of
the ICJ and UNCLOS. Australian policy is that we benefit financially
from areas which are under dispute, and that policy has brought
us nearly $2 billion since 1999.
In discussing consequences of this policy, it is both fair and
proper to consider the effects of the distribution of wealth. So
whilst I argue that the ownership of the resources of the Timor
Sea must be determined only on principles of accepted law and customary
practice, I maintain that the dire need of the people of East Timor
makes the application of justice a priority. East Timor has gained
its political independence, but is not yet economically independent.
It is one of the poorest nations in Asia.
The East Timorese Government has developed a National Development
Plan for the next twenty years, which is aimed at lifting the nation
out of poverty. It was drafted after consultations involving 40,000
people in more than 500 towns and villages across the country. The
top priorities are: education (70 percent), health (49 percent)
and agriculture (32 percent) as the top three, followed by the economy,
roads, poverty, water and electricity.
It is interesting to compare the concerns of the East Timorese
people with those of Australians as we face this election. Education
and health are top priorities for both peoples, with the economy
high on both our lists. However, our poorest schools are whiz-bang
compared to the best Timor has to offer, and our dogs and cats have
far greater access to health care.
There is a sense of purpose in the new East Timorese Government.
They plan that education and health will consume 48 percent of spending
in these first years of independence. They plan to bank rather than
spend revenue from the new offshore oil and gas for the first few
years. They plan deficit-free budgets. They have begun life as a
new nation debt-free, determined to leverage the oil and gas windfall
to create a self-sustaining economy.
These positive aspirations are tempered by the realisation that
there has been a decline in international assistance and reconstruction
activities. There has been an estimated two percent decrease of
the Growth Domestic Product (GDP) in the Fiscal Year 2003-2004 meaning
a decline of overall economic growth. Capital spending has been
curtailed by 15% of the GDP, and there will probably be a decrease
in public investment of about US$40-45 million a year for the next
This situation has been caused by:
the winding down of the UN presence,
normal post-conflict transition,
a decrease in demand for goods,
an increase in poverty.
It has been remarked to me by a number of people familiar with
East Timor that the well-being of people out in the country has
With a population of about 900,000, half of whom are under the
age of fourteen, East Timor faces an uphill battle even to feed
them. Food insecurity is widespread, resulting in wasting and stunting.
as measured by weight-for-height, is used as an indicator of short-term
access to adequate food, and is therefore affected by seasonal food
availability. Over one in ten children are moderately or severely
wasted. Stunting, which is measured by height-for-age, is an indicator
of longer-term nutritional deficiency over multiple seasons. One
in two children are moderately or severely stunted. This evidence
points to widespread chronic malnutrition.
Life expectancy is low at 57 years. There is a lack of safe drinking
water and poor sanitation facilities, and to the predominance of
communicable diseases: malaria, tuberculosis and infections.
In order to halve poverty by 2015, Timor-Leste needs an annual
economic growth rate of 4.4 percent over the next decade. To achieve
this these issues must be addressed:
The Government has to generate sustainable domestic production,
services and employment and so become less dependent on external
support. This requires the promotion of good governance and efficiency,
professionalism, transparency and accountability in state institutions,
and the willingness and capacity to fight corruption in these areas.
percent of the population live beneath the poverty line, that is,
they have less than a dollar a day to live on. Most of these people
are in the rural areas. But only one-third of the total expenditure
of East Timor and one-fifth of its goods and services go to these
The agriculture sector contributes only one-fifth of the GDP while
employing two-thirds of the population. Because of this overwhelming
poverty in the rural sector the first priority must be to address
rural skills and resource needs, to decentralize government agencies
and development, so that basic services are provided where they
are needed. The East Timor Government needs to increase productivity
by large-scale investment in rural development including infrastructure,
agriculture, forestry and livestock.
East Timor's only natural resource of any magnitude lies under
the Timor Sea. No other resource exists on a scale which could seriously
address the food needs and other needsof the people.
Whilst it is true that the decisions on maritime boundaries must
be based on justice, not charity, such considerations are luxuries
which only those in Australia can afford, and they are beneath the
contempt of those in East Timor who are dying from lack of nourishment
Despite the poverty of these people, the Australian Government
feels justified in dithering around over the oil and gas issue,
a policy which has health, even survival consequences for some East
One of the consequences for Australia is a further squandering
of international respect. If we are not willing to act responsibly
in our region, particularly where money is concerned, how can we
expect that others treat us in good faith? When Australian officials
bleat on and on about issues of sovereignty, "These negotiations
involve significant issues of sovereignty for Australia",
how can they hope for a respectful hearing in the light of Australia's
recent history of resistance to the claims to sovereignty made by
the Timorese, issues which caused so many deaths? Australia's pathetic
self-interest, so transparent in this case, must cause Asian nations
to raise their well-mannered eyebrows. Another is the further eroding
of the Australian people's trust in Government. Where does willingness
to dupe the population stop? Do we expect any Australian Government
to value truth when manipulation of the truth is so prevalent?
Official communications are full of half-truths. A good example
of this is the latest two-page summary of Australia¹s position
published by DFAT.
It says: "No country has done more than Australia to assist
the people of East Timor to realise their aspirations for independence
and to help bring peace, stability and prosperity to the new nation."
This at least is an advance on that other hilarious line: "Australia
has long been at the forefront of international assistance to East
Timor." The history gives the lie to all this fluff. Alone
among the nations, Australia gave official and supine recognition
of Indonesia's illegal occupation. We could go on, but let's get
back to the half-truths.
In discussing the Timor Trough, this paper says: "International
law supports Australia's claim to the full extent of its continental
shelf northward to the deepest part of the Timor Trough."
But as Brennan points out (p.23), from 1985 International law has
been moving "in the direction of drawing a median line between
countries with coastlines opposite each other and separated by less
than 400 nautical miles," as is the case in point.
paper says that International law does not require that all maritime
boundary disputes be resolved by using median lines. Indeed, that
is true. But it is even more true that the general movement of international
legal opinion is to decide these issues on median line principles.
The Australian Government has the tricky knack of caricaturing opposing
opinions and then building its case on refuting these caricatures,
in this case, by using the word "require". Another example
occurs in the same paper: "Suggestions that an equidistant
boundary would attribute to East Timor most of the Timor Sea¹s
resources are simply wrong." But what fool would assert
such a thing? No one is saying that Timor should get all the resources
of the Timor Sea. That would be unfair to us Australians. We are
talking about, and only talking about resources which happen to
exist on East Timor's side of a half-way line.
It said that we should remember that Australia remains a party
to UNCLOS. a statement designed to mislead. They don¹t say
clearly that whilst officially a Party to the Convention and to
the Court of Justice, Australia has withdrawn from those elements
of the ICJ and UNCLOS which affect the dispute between East Timor
and Australia. It is dishonest to pretend adherence to the whole
while omitting to mention self-imposed exclusion from the only relevant
No wonder it won't subject itself to the ICJ and ITLOS, where such
underhanded use of language would be seen for what it is.
One reality which seems to be beyond the comprehension of many
in Government here is the probability that East Timor will simply
not give up. Refusal to find a just solution now will promote a
festering sore for many years to come. The Timorese know how to
hang on. They survived the laziest and most inept coloniser Portugal
and the brutal and stupid dictatorship of Suharto. They will use
to their advantage the musical chairs of the Australian Parliamentary
system. The only aspect which will grow in strength is bad feeling
between the two countries.
DFAT has stated, "It is clearly within Australia's national
interest that East Timor be a stable and economically self-sufficient
neighbour." There is a sense in which that statement is
unfinished. Australia's recalcitrance in seeing that justice is
applied suggests that the stability and economic self-sufficiency
somehow must be on our terms, as though it is up to us to dictate
how rich the nation should be.
In fact, on Four Corners ABC TV 26.05.04 Alexander Downer said:
"If there is an issue of economic disparity between Australia
and East Timor that should be addressed through aid, which it is.
It should not be addressed through shifting boundaries and changing
I think that this means that the Government would prefer to see
a dependent East Timor, one more likely to be controlled by aid
and debt, than a free and self-sufficient small neighbour.
Sister Susan Connelly
Mary MacKillop Institute of East Timorese Studies
PO Box 299 St Marys 1790
Images used in this article courtesy www.saveeasttimor.org
website and UNDA students.