Australia's Oil Grab (East Timor)
by Jon Lamb
Multinational Monitor, March/April
"We went to East Timor to help those
people, and now we are slapping them in the face and stealing
This is what Chip Henriss-Anderssen, a
former major in the Australian military who served with the International
Force for East Timor, told reporters on March 7. "We thought
we were doing something decent. Now we have to ask the very real
question of whether or not we went to East Timor to secure oil
assets that aren't ours."
The latest round of talks between Australia
and East Timor in Canberra on disputed oil and gas fields in the
Timor Sea took place March 7-9, but concluded with little more
than an announcement that further talks will take place soon.
Just prior to the talks, a foreign affairs
and trade department official told reporters in Canberra that
the Australian coalition government was prepared to hold out for
up to 99 years - referring to a "Hong Kong" scenario
if the government of East Timor maintained its demand that the
maritime boundaries be settled according to international law.
Two months before East Timor gained independence,
Australia withdrew recognition of the maritime boundary jurisdiction
of the International Court of justice, leaving East Timor with
no legal avenue to contest the current boundary dispute.
At the center of discussions is the Greater
Sunrise gas field, the largest known reserve of gas in the Timor
Sea. Negotiations stalled last year after the October federal
election, when the East Timorese government refused to accept
the terms on offer for a "creative solution" regarding
The Australian government has reportedly
made an offer of $2.4 billion to $4 billion (over 30 years) to
East Timor if it drops the demand for a royalty share greater
than 18 percent. Australian negotiators are arguing that this
new "creative solution" should be concluded separate
to finalizing the maritime boundaries, hence the threat to hold
out for decades if East Timor does not relinquish its claims.
While the estimates of the wealth expected
to be generated from Greater Sunrise vary, based on current world
prices the total government take from royalties is likely to be
on the order of $30 billion. The Australian government appears
to hope that cash-strapped East Timor will accept.
A delegation of prominent Australian supporters
of East Timor, including Greens Senator Bob Brown, Bishop Hilton
Deakin and businessperson Ian Melrose, gathered in Canberra outside
the venue of the talks on March 7 and condemned the Australian
According to Bishop Hilton Deakin, "The
majority of Australians want our government to offer a fair deal
that reflects East Timor's rightful entitlement under current
Melrose has vowed to spend more than $4.5
million on a media campaign in support of East Timor's claims,
"if I don't think it's getting the momentum required."
Many former Australian military personnel,
including Second World War veterans who were stationed in Timor,
have spoken out in support of East Timor's rights.
A letter signed by 17 U.S. senators and
representatives was also recently sent to Prime Minister John
Howard, calling for "Australia to move quickly and seriously
to establish a fair, permanent maritime boundary with Timor-Leste."
The letter said: "An equitable sharing
of oil and gas revenues would enable Timor-Leste to provide better
healthcare and other essential services to its citizens. Such
equitable sharing of revenue is not a question of charity; rather
it is a matter of self-determination, sovereignty and Timor-Leste's
"Unless the Australian government
acknowledges East Timor's legal entitlements under current international
law and stops trying to shortchange the East Timorese people,"
says Tom Clarke, coordinator of the Timor Sea Justice Campaign
in Melbourne, "future negotiations are not going to result
in a just and fair outcome."
"The East Timorese resisted a brutal
occupation for 24 long years. Why would they give up on their
struggle for self-determination for a one-off payment that falls
well short of what East Timor is legally entitled to?"
Clarke claims the Howard government is
ignoring international law "so it can take billions of dollars
from one of the poorest nations in the world. East Timorese children
are dying from preventable diseases and the Australian government
is taking $1 million a day of contested oil royalties. It's bringing
shame to all Australians."
Third World Network Features/Green Left
Weekly. This article appeared initially in Green Left Weekly,
March 16, 2005.
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