Mary MacKillop Institute of East Timorese Studies
Politics in the Pub, Gaelic Club, 17.09.04
The 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.
The spin on this principle is put by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade thus: ³It is not appropriate to link East Timor¹s economic and social development with requests for Australia to sign away long-standing sovereign rights in respect of its continental shelf.²
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 people.
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 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 four years.
This situation has been caused by
1. the winding
down of the UN presence,
2. normal post-conflict transition
3. a decrease in demand for goods
4. 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 noticeably deteriorated.
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.
Wasting, 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.
Forty-six 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 districts. 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 Timor¹s 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 or care.
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 Timorese people.
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, ³These negotiations involve significant issues of sovereignty for Australia², how can they hope for a respectful hearing in the light of Australia¹s recent history of resistance to the claims to sovereignty made by the Timorese, issues which caused so many deaths? Australia¹s 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 people¹s 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, and in this case, so profitable?
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: ³No 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.² This at least is an advance on that other hilarious line: ³Australia has long been at the forefront of international assistance to East Timor.² The history gives the lie to all this fluff. Alone among the nations, Australia gave official and supine recognition of Indonesia¹s illegal occupation. We could go on, but let¹s get back to the half-truths.
In discussing the Timor Trough, this paper says: ³International law supports Australia¹s claim to the full extent of its continental shelf northward to the deepest part of the Timor Trough.² But as Brennan points out (p.23), from 1985 International law has been moving ³in the direction of drawing a median line between countries with coastlines opposite each other and separated by less than 400 nautical miles,² as is the case in point.
The 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 ³require.² Another example occurs in the same paper: ³Suggestions that an equidistant boundary would attribute to East Timor most of the Timor Sea¹s resources are simply wrong.² 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 Timor¹s side of a half-way line, which in anyone¹s language is a pretty fair place to talk about fairness. My badge says ³It¹s Timor¹s Oil² and that statement is not referring to anything on Australia¹s side of half-way. Another of the many examples of this illegitimate type of argument occurs in some letters received from Liberal ministers, those who move themselves to answer letters, anyway.
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 part.
No wonder it won¹t 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, ³It is clearly within Australia¹s national interest that East Timor be a stable and economically self-sufficient neighbour.² There is a sense in which that statement is unfinished. Australia¹s 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: ³If 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 International Law.²
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.
1. Timor-Leste. Poverty in a New Nation: An Analysis for Action, Asian Development Bank et al. Dili, 2003.
2. http://www.etan.org/et2002b/june/23-30/45lettr.htm July 15, 2002 Letter From East Timor by Wilson da Silva
Speech by Dr. Sukehiro Hasegawa Acting Special Representative of the Secretary-General at the Public Debate on Social and Economic Issues in Timor-Leste on ³Timor-Leste¹s Economy after UNMISET² 22 January 2004 Becora, Timor-Leste
5. Brennan, Frank.
The Timor Sea¹s Oil and Gas What¹s Fair? Australian Catholic
Social Justice Council, North Sydney, 2004.
Sister Susan Connelly
Mary MacKillop Institute of East Timorese Studies
PO Box 299 St Marys 1790
Ph 02 9623 2847
Fx 02 9623 1573