Come on Aussie

An Australia Day Reflection

We have a lot to be thankful for in Australia and I’m OK with celebrating a National Day.

In many, many ways we are the lucky country.

But sometimes we can get carried away and forget to “look in our own backyard.”

This was the case with our Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull last week when speaking in Washington. There he urged the USA to show leadership by ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea [UNCLOS] and endorsed the value of international law to settle disputes.

In fact he was particularly eloquent and after quoting some ancient history [Thucydides] said:

"Now, the international order, the rule of law, seeks to ensure that that is not so, that might is not right, and that is why we will always work with the United States and our other allies and partners to uphold.”

Australia’s international law record with East Timor is not so rosy.

And some who know the story well could not remain silent.

The day before “Australia Day” the gap between the “talk and the walk” was called out by Tom Allard’s article in the Sydney Morning Herald “Malcolm Turbull’s foreign policy hypocrisy on East Timor.”

The article notes:

"In 2002, after negotiating a temporary boundary with the transitional administration in East Timor that hugely favoured Australia and placed the bulk of oil and gas reserves within its territory, Australia quietly withdrew from the jurisdiction of UNCLOS.

The reason was obvious. It had negotiated a deal with an impoverished, war-ravaged and fledgling state that was so unfair it would not stand up to challenge under international law.

If the boundary was drawn midway between East Timor and Australia – as is standard under international law – most of the oil and gas reserves would lie within Timor's territory."

We have an explainer on this in a blog post called The Carve Out.

After the Carve Out was executed in stealth in March 2002 some members of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties spoke out to say they believed that:

“the ICJ declaration made by the Minister of Foreign Affairs damages Australia’s international reputation and may not be in Australia’s long-term national interests.

The declaration may be interpreted as an effort to intimidate and limit the options of neighbouring countries in relation to any future maritime border disputes.”

Too right.

Minister Xanana Gusmão described the message sent by the 2002 Carve Out in this video.

“It means something. At least bad faith. At least no sentiment of compassion. It means something very different from compassion"

It is not in Australia’s interest to continue this “diplomatic double standard”.

To reapply Mr. Turnbull’s own words it diminishes Australia’s leadership where it is most needed.

The solution?

Resubmit to the jurisdiction of the ICJ and ITLOS which are the dispute resolution mechanisms for maritime boundaries under UNCLOS or get on with negotiating the maritime boundary.

You will be hearing many voices adding to this call during 2016.

Come Australia - we are better than this. 

Lead the way Mr. Turnbull.