E. Ti­mor primed for le­gal bat­tle with Aus­tralia in gas pipeline row


Thir­teen years af­ter win­ning in­de­pen­dence from In­done­sia, East Ti­mor has to wage another strug­gle for jus­tice with a more pow­er­ful neigh­bor — but this time in the courts, the na­tion’s prime min­is­ter says.

Af­ter two years of in­con­clu­sive tech­ni­cal talks, East Ti­mor last week an­nounced it was ini­ti­at­ing ar­bi­tra­tion with Aus­tralia on ju­ris­dic­tion of a seabed petroleum field — the latest round of lit­i­ga­tion in a messy dis­pute be­tween the two coun­tries over how they split lu­cra­tive oil and gas rev­enues.

“We are claim­ing what be­longs to us. It’s an is­sue of sovereignty and an is­sue of jus­tice,” said Prime Min­is­ter Rui Maria de Araujo, who took of­fice in Fe­bru­ary af­ter in­de­pen­dence hero Xanana Gus­mao re­signed to make way for a new gen­er­a­tion of Ti­morese lead­ers.

Araujo spoke to The As­so­ci­ated Press Wed­nes­day on the side­lines of the an­nual meet­ing of world lead­ers at the U.N.

East Ti­mor, an im­pov­er­ished na­tion of 1.1 mil­lion, be­came a sov­er­eign state in 2002. It de­pends on petroleum rev­enues for 90 per­cent of its econ­omy and is con­cerned that funds could dry up within years.

In the new lit­i­ga­tion, East Ti­mor is dis­put­ing Aus­tralia’s ex­clu­sive right to the ju­ris­dic­tion and tax­a­tion of the pipeline lead­ing into a joint petroleum de­vel­op­ment area.

Aus­tralia said last week it will de­fend against the le­gal ac­tion. It said that the treaty un­der which the two na­tions di­vide the rev­enues states that ju­ris­dic­tion de­pends on where the pipeline lands, which is in north­ern Aus­tralia.

East Ti­mor has al­ready chal­lenged the va­lid­ity of the 2006 treaty.

It con­tends that Aus­tralia spied on it dur­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions for the treaty. And in 2013, it launched a le­gal ac­tion at the In­ter­na­tional Court of Jus­tice af­ter Aus­tralian po­lice seized doc­u­ments from a lawyer rep­re­sent­ing East Ti­mor who al­legedly wit­nessed the spy­ing. The court banned Aus­tralia from us­ing the seized doc­u­ments and it re­turned them to East Ti­mor.

Araujo said the crux of the dis­pute with Aus­tralia is over where the mar­itime bor­der in the Ti­mor Sea lies. The ter­ri­tory jointly ad­min­is­tered by the two coun­tries cur­rently fol­lows a bound­ary set in 1972 when East Ti­mor was still oc­cu­pied by In­done­sia. That bound­ary is much closer to the coast of East Ti­mor than Aus­tralia. East Ti­mor wants it to be set at a me­dian line be­tween them, so more of the petroleum fields would lie in its wa­ters, so it would earn more rev­enue.

In June, Aus­tralian For­eign Min­is­ter Julie Bishop told par­lia­ment that Aus­tralia would re­sist East Ti­mor’s ef­fort to re­draw the sea bor­der be­tween the na­tions as de­lin­eated un­der the 2006 treaty. She said the treaty was al­ready gen­er­ous enough.

Un­der the cur­rent ar­range­ments, rev­enues from the Bayu Un­dan gas and con­den­sate field that has been be­ing ex­ploited for the past decade are di­vided up 90-10 in East Ti­mor’s fa­vor. But Araujo said the field has passed its peak pro­duc­tion and is ex­pected to dry up within five to ten years.

Rev­enues from the planned Greater Sunrise field would be split 50-50, but 80 per­cent of the field lies in Aus­tralian wa­ters so it would earn the lion’s share if pro­duc­tion starts.

Araujo says de­spite the po­lit­i­cal dis­agree­ment over the oil rev­enues and mar­itime bor­der, re­la­tions with Aus­tralia are good, and he has in­vited new Prime Min­is­ter Mal­colm Turnbull to visit East Ti­mor.

Still, Araujo likens the long-run­ning le­gal tra­vails to the 24-year armed strug­gle against In­done­sian oc­cu­pa­tion that had left more than 170,000 dead — a strug­gle that few out­siders ex­pected East Ti­mor to win, un­til a U.N.-ad­min­is­tered ref­er­en­dum in which its peo­ple voted for in­de­pen­dence in 1999.

“Peo­ple were pes­simistic, say­ing that In­done­sia will never go out from East Ti­mor be­cause all the big Western pow­ers were sup­port­ing In­done­sia. The only thing we used as a strong moral and po­lit­i­cal mo­ti­vat­ing fac­tor was in­ter­na­tional law,” he said.

“It may sound rhetor­i­cal, but we think that we are in the right side again.”

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