Howard bullies East Timor again



After lengthy negotiations spanning several years, the Coalition government has finally bullied East Timor into accepting the terms of the new Timor Sea treaty. Talks had stalled in recent months because of the Australian government's refusal to compromise on its claim over the disputed Greater Sunrise gas field.

This stalling by Prime Minister John Howard and foreign minister Alexander Downer has seriously threatened the $20 billion Bayu-Undan development, the contract for which was due to lapse if the treaty was not ratified by both Australia and East Timor before March 11. The Bayu-Undan development is expected to bring $67 million in royalties in the first year of operations. It will be vital income for the cash-strapped Timorese economy.

On March 5, Downer flew to East Timor to finalise the unitisation agreement for Greater Sunrise, an annex to the overall treaty. Greater Sunrise is a huge gas field that partly overlaps the eastern boundary of an area known as Zone A, covered by the Timor Sea treaty. It is the terms of this annex that has most angered East Timorese negotiators, as the claims put forward by Australia will deny East Timor considerable royalties.

Under the terms of the treaty, 20% of this crucial Greater Sunrise field is considered to lie within Zone A. East Timor will receive 90% of this 20% of Greater Sunrise, which means East Timor will get 18% of the overall revenue from Greater Sunrise.

If the disputed maritime boundary between East Timor and Australia was set according to the norms of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, then Greater Sunrise would almost certainly (along with Bayu-Undan and other fields) fall solely under the sovereignty of East Timor.

In March 2002, the Australian government withdrew from the International Court of Justice and the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, the bodies normally involved in such territorial disputes. During the whole negotiation process, the Howard government has consistently criticised East Timorese and United Nations negotiators for pursuing legal avenues to assert East Timor's sovereign rights.

From Green Left Weekly, March 12, 2003.
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