To review 2015 here's TIMFO's top five highlights for the year that was:
1. Straight Talking from the Leadership of Timor-Leste
2015 was a year of clear and consistent statements from the leadership of Timor-Leste on the issue of maritime boundaries. Seeing the current Prime Minister, Dr. Rui Maria de Araújo along with former Prime Minister/Presidents Xanana Gusmão and Dr. José Ramos Horta speaking to this "national priority" in New York in September left no doubt about exactly what the Timorese are seeking.
The Prime Minister's speech is here.
Their position was sustained throughout the year from the inauguration speech of the new Prime Minister in February through to the speeches given in by leadership in Australia during the final months of the year. Minister of State Agio Pereira and Ambassador Abel Guterres pulled no punches speaking in Canberra in November and the speech of Minister Gusmão at the conferral of an honorary doctorate at University of Melbourne in December was an eloquent explanation that quickly attracted social media attention.
The Australian Government bit back and the exchange between Ministers Bishop and Gusmão in the Letters to the Editor of the Saturday Paper was revealing of the attitudes at play.
2. A Policy to Negotiate by the ALP
Whether you are a fan of the Australian Labor Party or not, when a major political party that has held office for half of the past thirty years makes a resolution that it will negotiate boundaries with Timor-Leste when elected to Government, it sends a BIG message.
This happened at the National Conference in Melbourne on 26th of July 2015. The Party resolved that:
- The Australian Labor Party is committed to maintaining a close and positive relationship with the people of Timor-Leste.
- In Government, Labor will enter into structured engagement with Timor-Leste to negotiate the settlement of maritime boundaries between our two countries.
- Labor reaffirms our commitment to a rules-based international system, underpinned by a philosophy of mutilateralism and institutions like the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
- In light of this, in Government Labor will review its reservations to the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to the settlement of maritime boundary disputes through the ICJ and theInternational Tribunal of the Law of the Sea (ITLOS).
The BIG message sent here?
This maritime border negotiation ... it can be done. The the wheels won’t fall off, change is possible.
3. A Choir of Voices
In 2015 there was a Choir of Australian Voices publicly advocating for the negotiation of Timor-Leste’s maritime boundary. And the good news is that this choir attracted more members over the year and the singing became more powerful.
A wide range of individuals and organizations spoke out and issued a “call to action” to the Government of Australia. “Get on with it” they said - "draw the line according to international law. Right the wrong in the Timor Sea."
Local councils approved resolutions, politicians made statements in Parliament, business people said it would be good for business, unions expressed solidarity, Get Up put out a great advertisement and the Timor Sea Justice Campaign really stepped up their efforts.
4. Indonesia Begins
Timor has two maritime neighbors - Indonesia and Australia. Up until 2015 it had not begun to negotiate its maritime boundaries with either of them.
That all changed after Prime Minister Araújo’s first official visit to Indonesia in August when he and President Joko Widodo committed to begin the negotiations. “First in the north waters and then in the south” he said.
Indonesia agreed that negotiations would be guided by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Before the close of 2015 officials from Timor-Leste and Indonesia met several times to nut out a road map for the negotiations. The wheels are turning, the process is underway.
So why is that a big deal as far as the demarcation of the border between Australia and Timor-Leste is concerned?
Two reasons, first it sets and example- maritime boundary delimitation can be done, and done in good faith based on the principles of international law.
Second it makes irrelevant the notion that we can't look at the borders in the Timor Sea for fear of opening a can of worms with Indonesia. We like to call this position, a favorite of Alexander Downer"fear of the great unraveling."
Sorry mate - too late. The Indonesians and the Timorese are delimiting.
Potentially this is a great opportunity to have all three countries work together demonstrating to the international community willingness to resolve issues with mutual respect guided by international law and principles. Too much to ask?
5. Taking it to the Streets
The Timor Sea Forum held its first protest in a long time outside the NSW Headquarters of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in December. A week earlier our friends down south in the Timor Sea Justice Campaign held a protest in Melbourne. Both called on the Government of Australian to establish permanent and fair maritime boundaries with East Timor in accordance with international law – that is along the median line halfway between the two coastlines. We included a speech by one of the Timorese students in Melbourne in our blog.
It was a good beginning, an encouragement that we are ready and able to take it to the streets. Plans are underway already for public events in 2016
So there you have it. Five Highlights of 2015.
TIMFO is primed for a big 2016.
We would be delighted be made redundant by the conclusion of Timor-Leste and Australia’s maritime border negotiation - conducted in good faith and under the principles of international law.
But until then …..