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Australia: land of sweeping plains and flexible borders needing protection

By James Ensor - posted Wednesday, 3 December 2003

Pity the many confused students of Australian geography who, until recent weeks, thought that Australia’s national borders were clearly established.

In a bizarre month of border tampering, the long-standing tradition of setting Australia’s national boundaries according to international law was abandoned in favour of a new "elastic band" approach to fencing our borders. This new and innovative policy approach involves the Australian government simultaneously shrinking or stretching our borders according to the principles of self-interest and greed.

The supposed threat posed by 14 asylum seekers beaching on Melville Island - some 50 kilometres off our northern coast - triggered a frenzy of activity in Canberra designed to tighten our national borders by excising Melville and thousands of other nearby islands from the Australian migration zone. Towed back out of Australian waters, the asylum seekers face deportation from Indonesia, a country which has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention.


Meanwhile, at the same time in Darwin, Australian government negotiators were furiously stretching our elastic border to a point hundreds of kilometres off our northern coast in negotiations over a new maritime boundary with East Timor.

Under the waters of the Timor Sea between Australia and the world’s newest nation lie vast reserves of oil and natural gas over which political tensions between Canberra and Dili are rapidly heating up. Central to the tensions are the tens of billions of dollars worth of oil and gas from an area of the Timor Sea that is currently subject to overlapping maritime boundary claims by the two countries.

With this sort of money at stake, the Australian government negotiators claimed that our maritime boundary in fact extends to the edge of the Australian continental shelf – 400 kilometres off our northern coast - and, unsurprisingly, far closer to East Timor than Australia. Such an outcome to boundary negotiations would bring the vast bulk of revenue from the oil and gas deposits into Canberra’s rather than Dili’s coffers.

One of the poorest countries in the world, East Timor desperately needs revenues from the Timor Sea oil and gas reserves to meet its development challenges. Only 60 per cent of Timorese people can read and write. Life expectancy is just 57 years and more than one in ten East Timorese children born today will likely die before the age of five. To confront these challenges, East Timor’s paltry annual budget of US$79 million is heavily reliant on foreign aid money - most of which is set to rapidly decline over the next three years leaving East Timor with an anticipated budget deficit of more than US$130 million.

Against this backdrop is growing resentment in East Timor towards what is widely perceived as the Australia’s lack of good faith in the maritime boundary negotiations which will determine our relative shares of the oil and gas reserves.

The East Timorese appear to have a point. Under interim Treaty arrangements, the major oil and gas fields lie in territory exclusively claimed by Australia, sending the vast bulk of revenue flows to Canberra. However, under international maritime law, East Timor could successfully lay claim to a far greater proportion of the oil and gas reserves of the Timor Sea. This would be achieved by the establishment of a maritime boundary along a middle line between the Australian and East Timorese coasts, through the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), as judged by an independent umpire - the International Court of Justice (ICJ).


But Australia doesn’t just play hardball with asylum seekers. During 2002, the Australian Government ruled out this option for East Timor by withdrawing from the arbitration mechanisms of UNCLOS and the ICJ. This effectively prevents East Timor from seeking independent resolution under international law of the disputed maritime boundary between the two countries and, at the same time, ensures Australia can continue to delay maritime boundary negotiations.

It is an approach not lost on East Timor Prime Minister, Mari Alkatiri, who after last week’s initial negotiations in Darwin accused Australia of deliberately dragging out the talks to keep revenues flowing disproportionately to Canberra for as long as possible. “We have proposed monthly meetings, they are only ready for twice a year meetings” he said. “With this type of schedule maybe my grandson and grand-daughter will resolve the problems.”

The elastic band approach to fencing our borders has become nothing short of high farce. Australia should conduct its affairs in a manner consistent with international maritime law and our obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention. We should agree to process those people seeking asylum as well as commit to achieving a permanent agreed maritime boundary with East Timor. This agreement must be reached within five years or otherwise referred to the independent umpire for arbitration: the International Court of Justice.

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This article was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 27 November 2003.

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About the Author

James Ensor is Director of Public Policy at Oxfam Australia.

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