2016 - the year that was ...
Last year saw some major developments in East Timor's quest to establish its maritime boundary with Australia.
Frustrated with the Australian Government's refusal to enter into a dialogue on the boundary the Timorese Government kicked off a United Nations procedure in April. At the time Timor's Prime Minister said that he hoped the process would "assist our two countries to reach an amicable solution on permanent maritime boundaries.”
This UN Compulsory Conciliation began to take form in June when an independent five person panel was constituted and began to receive information ahead of hearings to be held in The Hague towards the end of August.
The Australian Government, true to form, wheeled out diplomatic lines about their participation and respect for the UN, but clearly didn't want a bar of it and fought hard to have to whole process dismissed on jurisdictional grounds.
Frankly, after they aggressively made the case for shutting the process down, I think they were stunned when the Commission published its Decision on Competence on the 26th of September and unanimously affirmed the competence of the commission to consider the issue.
This was a big win for Timor and an encouraging moment for those of us in the NSW Timor Sea Justice Forum who saw it as a positive step to get things moving. The Commission was determined to provide a space to discuss the issue and the Australian government had obligations to participate.
For those of us who have followed this sorry saga over the decades, encouraging news like this is treated with a dose of scepticism since we are well versed in the way Foreign Affairs has consistently played its tough game with Timor. It is always about national interest, as it should be, however we continue to make the case that it is now well and truly in Australia's national interest to amicably resolve this dispute.
The Conciliation Commission process is confidential some information has been made available. The last press release which followed meetings in Singapore in mid-October was particularly upbeat.
2016 was also the year of Australia's Federal election. In the lead up to the vote on 2 July Labor, who came close to winning Government, tabled a clear policy about Timor-Leste; supporting immediate negotiations of a maritime boundary and committing to submit to international adjudication or arbitration if a settlement was not forthcoming. The Greens and several independents also presented similar policies.
On the advocacy front 2016 was also significant. The NSW Timor Sea Justice Forum stepped up hosting events, giving interviews and strengthening its online platform to support Timor-Leste's aspirations. It was a pleasure to host former President and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão in Sydney on 29 April for his speech on "The Wall of Silence" and later in the year to facilitate the Sydney premiere of the excellent new documentary Draw the Line.
With the issue of Timor-Leste's unresolved border receiving press throughout the year the numbers of supporters grew and with assistance more people began to make contact with their local political representatives. Independent polling undertaken at the end of August confirmed that most Australians want the Government to establish a permanent maritime boundary in the Timor Sea in accordance with current international law, even if that delivers East Timor a substantial share of the oil and gas in the Timor Sea.
In Victoria the Timor Sea Justice Campaign also ramped up its efforts and coordinated a large rally in Melbourne as well as focusing on social media and new creative avenues. Groups in Canberra, Brisbane and Adelaide were also active.
So what is ahead in 2017?
The UN Conciliation Commission process ends with a report which is due on the 26th of September 2017. This will be delivered to the Secretary General of the United Nations, a great friend of Timor, Mr. Antonio Guterres, for his consideration. If the positive messages emerging from the Conciliation meetings convert into mutual agreements there may be some good news to report. It is more likely that the news is the announcement of a road map for negotiations rather than of a final agreement on exactly where the boundary lies.
We shall see.
In the meantime it is vital to continue raising the issue in the consciousness of our political representatives. In the past Australian officials have quipped that sorting out the border could take 100 years. AS late as 2016 Senator Brandis, the highest legal officeholder in the Government, still seemed to think that the Continental Shelf argument held currency over the median line principle. That opinion is not based on facts, as the 'half-way' principle is established in international case law on maritime boundaries for countries with overlapping claims. For how long does Australia intend to remain out of step with the world?
So advocates need to continue delivering Timor-Leste's message - which is that they want to promptly establish a maritime boundary with Australia that is consistent with international law. Whilst promoting their case in The Hague, the Timorese showed clearly what that would look like, based on an accepted three step process established in international maritime arbitration.
Also in 2017 be prepared for more articles that say Timor-Leste is on the brink of failure as a state, running out of money, with a dodgy leadership. There are interests who will be looking promote this impression. Be prepared to hear talk about Timor needing to accept certain pragmatic agreements because 'the window of opportunity is closing' and 'time is running out'.
I am not saying that Timor-Leste doesn't have significant challenges ahead, as is the case with all developing nations (and even very developed ones, like Australia). It's just that with the Conciliation in process and the possibility of agreements, negative and self-serving forces are at play.
Also be prepared for the Australian Government to be keeping a close eye on the Presidential and Parliamentary elections happening in Timor-Leste. Timor is solid across its political parties on the policy of pursuing the boundary and Xanana Gusmão is officially designated as the Chief Negotiator. However, there may be some hope among Australian officials that new leadership may be more 'flexible.' I leave that for you to ponder.
2016 was certainly a landmark year and I take this opportunity to thank you for your interest and activism.
2017 could see this issue finally move closer to a proper resolution - but - it is certainly not a forgone conclusion and it is not a time to 'take our foot off the pedal.'
And so there will be more events, more interventions in Canberra, more film screenings and more visits to Members of Parliament. Stay on board! Timor-Leste needs you.
Thanks again for your support in 2016 - and here's to a wonderful 2017 for our Timorese friends. May it be the year which sees some long overdue justice on the boundary issue and a year of peace, development and achievement for our 'neighbours to the north'.
6 January 2017