It looks like there is some hope of an agreement being brokered between Australia and East Timor that would finally see a maritime border. The most recent press release coming from the United Nations Conciliation Commission after meetings held in Singapore in early October was certainly very upbeat, saying "All agreed we should aim to reach agreement within the time-frame of the conciliation process." With the report of the Commission due on the 19th of September 2017 that means they would need to have made serious progress on an agreement within the next 7 months.
So is it time to pop the cork on the champagne and put our feet up?
Well I wouldn't recommend it. Years of observation make me a little sceptical.
The Australian team would have been quite shocked by the Commission's Decision on Competence announced on the 26th of September. My impression watching the Opening Statements webcast was that they were confident, perhaps even a little 'cocky'. The Decision was a resounding knockdown of their considerable effort to extricate themselves from the process, a vindication of East Timor's position that the issue needed proper discussion. It was a strong message from the Commissioners that they were determined to do their utmost to try assist in achieving a resolution of the dispute.
In the light of that it would have been foolish for Australia to be seen to continue 'resisting'. But Timor has been played by Australia before and one of the tactics has been to use time. When there were discussions about the boundary around the time of independence one Australian diplomat assured the Timorese that it could take a least a hundred years. At other times there has been pressure to agree quickly using arguments such as "the window is closing" or because "you are running out of money". Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop, who kept a very low profile after the Decision, has continued to remind us all that the process is not binding. With East Timor's Presidential and Parliamentary elections in the first 6 to 8 months next year perhaps there is a hope on the Aussie side that by September the political environment in Timor will be more favourable.
Having said all that I do have some hope because although the process is 'non-binding', a brokered agreement is binding. I would think that such an agreement is likely to concern a timetable and mutually agreed principles for delimiting the border, rather than a final determination of where the border lies. Whatever it is, my hope is that the Timorese get a fair border and soon.
So for us? Well I think now is just a great time to let more and more people know about what is going on. The Time to Draw the Line movie is going to be one way to do that and we will keep you up-to-date on its screenings. Also because there is a low or zero 'care factor' among most of our politicians we need to raise this issue in their consciousness, and more than ever now that the conciliation process is underway. It is important that they have a sense that people are watching and looking for a real outcome that delivers an 'international law maritime boundary' in a reasonable time frame. We have sample letters on the site for your local member and other activities in the pipeline to make sure our politicians are paying attention and there is some sense of accountability around this issue.
So keep the champagne on hand but don't pop the cork yet!