WASHINGTON - March 9 - Members of the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday called on Australia to fairly negotiate its maritime boundary with neighboring East Timor within three to five years.
In a letter to the Prime Minister John Howard, 53 members of Congress called on Australia to "move seriously and expeditiously in negotiations with East Timor to establish a fair, permanent maritime boundary and an equitable sharing of oil and gas resources in the Timor Sea."
The letter called the outcome of maritime boundary negotiations important "to the future economic development and security of East Timor," and urged "both governments to engage in good faith negotiations to resolve their maritime boundary in accordance with international legal principles." The letter expressed "hope [that] both governments will agree to a legal process for an impartial resolution if the boundary dispute cannot be settled by negotiation."
The letter also urged Australia to hold monthly meetings "as requested by East Timor" in order to resolve the issue within three to five years rather than the semi-annual meetings Australia insists on.
Revenue "from disputed areas on East Timor's side of the median line but outside the Joint Petroleum Development Area defined in the Timor Sea Treaty [should] be held in escrow until a permanent boundary is established," the letter said.
"The world is watching closely how Australia treats East Timor in boundary negotiations," said Karen Orenstein, Washington Coordinator of the East Timor Action Network. "Australia will lose the good will it generated in 1999 if it cheats East Timor out of the tens of billions of dollars of petroleum revenue."
The full text of the letter and a complete list of signers can be found at www.etan.org.
The letter was initiated by Representative Barney Frank (D-MA).
The next round of boundary talks are scheduled to take place in Dili, East Timor, April 19-23.
Substantial oil and natural gas deposits lie under the Timor Sea between Australia and East Timor. The fate of tens of billions of dollars of revenue depend on a permanent boundary agreement.
In October 2002, East Timor enacted a Maritime Boundary Law, claiming a 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone in all directions, based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Where neighboring claims overlap, as is the case with East Timor and Australia, countries must negotiate a permanent maritime boundary, usually halfway between their coastlines. In March 2002, Australia gave formal notice that it was withdrawing from international legal mechanisms - the International Court of Justice and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea - to resolve boundary issues that cannot be settled by negotiation. East Timor's soon-to-be Prime Minister called this withdrawal an "unfriendly" act. The withdrawal prevents the new nation from bringing Australia to those forums to contest its refusal to engage in timely and cooperative boundary negotiations.
East Timor is among the poorest of the world's countries, suffering from very low levels of basic services and high unemployment. East Timor is currently struggling not to go into debt to international financial institutions, as it needs to cover a US$126 million budgetary financing gap between 2005 and 2007. Yet between 1999 and today, the Australian government has received more than US$1 billion in oil and gas revenues from petroleum fields twice as close to East Timor than to Australia that would belong to East Timor under a fair boundary settlement.
Report language accompanying the Senate Foreign Operations Appropriations bill passed by the Appropriations Committee in July 2003 stated, "The Committee is aware of negotiations between East Timor and Australia over petroleum reserves, which will be of critical importance to the future economic development and security of East Timor. The Committee urges both governments to engage in good faith negotiations to resolve their maritime boundary expeditiously in accordance with international legal principles."
The text of the letter can be found at http://www.etan.org/news/2004/03houseltr.htm#letter.