Gusmão: Timor Leads by Example in Maritime Disputes

Gusmão: Timor Leads by Example in Maritime Disputes

Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Maritime Boundary negotiator Xanana Gusmão on August 30, 2019, after exchanging diplomatic notes on the new treaty (Image/Antonio Gonçalves)

DILI, 02 March 2020 (TATOLI)- Timor-Leste’s principal negotiator during the maritime boundaries dispute with Australia, Xanana Gusmão, said his country has set a benchmark for settling protracted disputes.

The two countries ratified the new boundary in August last year, after Timor triggered a compulsory conciliation mechanism through the UN’s Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS).

“The maritime boundary with Australia has brought pride to our young country and given us the opportunity to realise the potential of our seas,” he said.

Lead Maritime Boundaries Negotiator, Kay Rala Xanana Gusmão (Image/Tatoli)

In a keynote address at an ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) workshop on dispute resolution last week, Mr Gusmão said smaller countries can, and should use the “alternative avenue” of conciliation. The mechanism introduces an independent panel of experts to try to bring the parties to a resolution within a set timeframe.

“The UNCLOS conciliation shows the promise of the international system and the rules-based order at a time when it is under stress,” he said.

Mr Gusmão – a former president, and leader of the CNRT party which is likely to lead the next government – said “we [Timor-Leste] want to do what we can to support the resolution” of some 400 outstanding disputes worldwide that he said “threaten global security and cooperation”.

Representatives from 27 countries attended the two-day forum, including Australia’s Ambassador to Indonesia, Gary Quinlan, who represented the country during the conciliation talks. Mr Gusmão’s counterpart in maritime boundary negotiations with Indonesia, Damos Agusman, was also present.

The long road to demarcation

Mr Gusmão said Timor-Leste and Australia were the first nations to use the mechanism to settle a maritime boundary dispute. The agreement was confirmed with an exchanging of diplomatic notes on the anniversary of Timor’s independence vote, August 30, of last year. But the win for the new nation was some 30 years in the making.

Gareth Evans and Ali Alatas toast champagne to celebrate signing the Timor Gap Treaty (Image/Getty)

Under the Indonesian occupation in 1989, Australia’s then-Foreign Minister Gareth Evans signed the Timor Gap Treaty with his Indonesian counterpart; dividing the oil and gas wealth in the Timor Sea between Australia and Indonesia. The deal left the province of East Timor without a maritime boundary – the ‘Timor gap’.

After Independence in 2002, Timor-Leste signed a second treaty with Australia, and a third in 2006. Under the 2006 Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea (CMATS) treaty, Timor gave up its rights to re-enter negotiations for 50 years.

Australian Barrister Bernard Collaery (Image/Getty)

In 2013, however, a whistleblower revealed the Australian international spy agency, ASIS, had bugged confidential cabinet discussions in the Government Palace. Following the reports, the Timor-Leste government appealed to the International Court of Arbitration in the Netherlands to have the CMATS treaty torn up, while Australia pressed charges against the former spy, Witness K, and his lawyer, Bernard Collaery, for their involvement in leaking the news.

In 2016, Timor-Leste unilaterally rescinded the CMATS treaty, and invoked the compulsory arbitration mechanism for the first time. Australia protested the measure, but as a UNCLOS signatory, had no choice but to take part in the talks.

Finally, the two countries finally signed a new treaty in New York in 2018, significantly boosting the revenue sharing ratio of the Greater Sunrise gas reserves in favour of Timor-Leste.

TL-Aus talks a ‘role model’ for other disputes

Xanana Gusmão said setting a permanent boundary with Australia was “testament to the determination” of Timor’s people, who “took a chance” in initiating what is an obscure legal mechanism to reach a resolution.

Foreign Affairs Minister, Dionísio da Costa Babo Soares, said the ARF summit was a chance to explain how smaller nations could do the same.

“We organised [the meeting] to at least give Timor-Leste’s perspective to the world [of how] to resolve disputes over the demarcation of maritime boundaries using compulsory arbitration,” he said.

“[The meeting was] not just about maritime boundaries but [we] also talked about sovereignty and maritime wealth as fish, oil and gas [which] in the world today is seen as a source of life,” he concluded.

Former German diplomat Dr Anne-Marie Schleich, who served as Ambassador to New Zealand and several small nations in the Pacific, said the “efficient” resolution of the dispute using UNCLOS could be replicated.

“Because of these achievements, the speedy and efficient UNCLOS conciliation proceeding promises to become a role model for the settlement of other maritime disputes and sovereignty issues,” she argued.

In his speech to delegates, Mr Gusmão said the sea has a special spiritual significance to Timor-Leste, as an island nation, but the waters are also vital to the economy.

“Many Timorese depend on the oceans for their sustenance and livelihood. And the development of a blue economy and a petroleum industry based on the reserves of oil and gas under our seabed will underpin our economic future,” he said.

Timor-Leste is not a member of the 10-nation ASEAN bloc, but remains active in the ARF workshops. The next meeting, on aviation security, is in Manila, beginning March 11.

Journalist: Florencio Miranda Ximenes; Hortencio Sanchez
Editors: Robert Baird; Julia Chatarina; Agapito dos Santos
Nelia Borges

Click here for the original Tetum: MAP Aprezenta Polítika Kontrolu Riku-Soin Tasi iha Fórum Rejionál ASEAN


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