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East of Timor, South of justice

East of Timor, South of justice

When we talk about poverty and development it is very easy to disconnect ourselves from the root causes. The initial injustices that are causally connected to the perpetuation of modern poverty. This allows us to think about the work of international development as opt-in. A bit of a bonus to the ethical status quo of nation-states if you will. Something like shouting a drink for a friend who has lost their wallet. Now I’m not saying that you stole their wallet or anything. But you definitely had some suspicious involvement in its disappearance. Moving on.

Following Edward Snowden’s leaking of NSA documents which indicate that Australia attempted to tap the phones of senior Indonesian officials (see The Wire: Seasons 1-5), it has been alleged that Australia has also bugged the Timor-Leste Cabinet leading up to negotiations concerning oil and gas revenue sharing. Subsequently, Australia’s secret service (ASIO) has raided the homes of the lawyer and a former spy who planned to bring the case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.

So what is the significance of this? Well, let’s start with Australia’s motivation for bugging Timor-Leste’s Cabinet.

The negotiations, which were allegedly bugged by a team of ASIS technicians, concerned the Timor Sea Treaty, the agreement which assigns control and sharing agreements over oil and gas reserves lying in the Timor Gap (the area of ocean between Timor and Australia). This area of ocean is particularly significant for its vast and lucrative gas and oil reserves (tens of billions of dollars worth) and has been in Australia’s beady sights since before Portugal decolonisation of Timor-Leste in 1975.

The Timor Sea Treaty came into existence as the result of then foreign minister Alexander Downer’s strong-arm negotiation tactics against Timor-Leste following independence from Indonesia in 2002. Rather than following international maritime law and permanently setting a boundary halfway between Australia and Timor-Leste, Australia instead withdrew from the maritime boundary jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice. And now we are left with the Timor Sea Treaty which stipulates joint control over the reserves which clearly fall within the Timor-Leste’s half if a median line were to be drawn. Seems legit right?

Okay, so in an arguably biased historical summary, Australia’s leaders used the Timorese people for their own military advantage in WWII (at the cost of approximately 40,000 lives), turned a blind eye when Indonesia invaded in 1975 (at the cost of up to 200,000 lives between 1975 and 1999), strong-armed Timor-Leste into a straight-up unfair agreement over the Timor Gap and has most recently allegedly been spying on Cabinet meetings.

But there’s more. Bernard Collaery, the lawyer and former ASIS officer representing Timor-Leste (and the guy who’s house got raided), has claimed that the Cabinet offices which had been bugged were constructed and renovated as part of the AusAID program in 2004. Now this should not undermine the importance of foreign aid (I can personally attest to the value of the program formerly known as ‘AusAID’ in Timor-Leste), but certainly further delegitimises Australia’s use of its aid program as a political bargaining tool. You can imagine the collective cringing that takes place when people argue that Australia has some right to these oil and gas fields because of its generous support of Timor-Leste through foreign aid.

Because when it comes down to it, Australia’s responsibility and obligations to Timor-Leste go far beyond kindness or charity or any other warm fuzzy word that makes us feel like we have discharged something more than our moral requirements. Timor-Leste’s claim is a claim of right and a claim of what is just. In this case, this is obvious. But it also goes to the work of international development organisations more generally. The discourse of international development needs to be changed from one of charity to one of human rights (and thankfully this is slowly happening). While the underlying injustice of Australia’s denial of Timor-Leste’s ‘right to gas and oil’ is clear (see how I am actually slyly advocating for the recognition of right to exploit natural resources and degrade the environment here), it is not always so obvious when it comes to poverty. It is for this reason that it so important to advocate from a rights-based approach, shifting the ethical onus from charity to justice.


Geordie Fung is Oaktree's Timor-Leste Partnership Manager.

Image source: http://www.dollarsandsense.org