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Australia joins China in thumbing nose at international law

DILI (UCAN): Australia is showing that China is not the only bully in the region that is prepared to thumb its nose at international law and use its financial clout to kick its weaker neighbours around.

It is currently digging its heels in and refusing to renegotiate on the delicate issue of maritime boundaries between its huge land mass and its tiny neighbour, Timor-Leste, in a dispute in which billions of dollars’ worth of oil and gas reserves are at stake.

Earlier this year, after Australia rejected another request to renegotiate maritime boundaries, the Timor-Leste government brought the dispute to the United Nations.

The tiny nation argued that the lack of a fixed, mutually respected border with Australia has already cost it billions of dollars in oil and gas revenues.

In 2002, Australia’s minister for foreign affairs, Alexander Downer, pre-emptively withdrew Australia’s recognition of the maritime boundary jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice.

Australia has already unilaterally depleted the contested Laminaria Corallina oil fields, which Timor Leste claimed belongs to it. But they have now been sucked dry without Dili receiving a single dollar.

Timor-Leste depends on oil to support its development, using it to fund infrastructure, education, health and other services.

The Church in Timor-Leste led a demonstration in its capital of Dili on August 5 in support of the claims of its government.

People marched on the Australian embassy in Dili at the close of the Association of South East Nations (ASEAN) People’s Forum, in which the maritime dispute was discussed.

Father Mario de Calvalho Soares, the director of Caritas in Baucau, participated in the conference. He said that both the Church and the people appreciate the support of the forum.

“The Church supports this plight, because it is for the greater benefit of the Timor-Leste people,” Father Soares commented. “It is part of the Church’s mission to serve the people, who are 97 per cent Catholic.”

Timor-Leste has a population of 1.2 million living in 13 districts across three dioceses, Dili, Baucau and Maliana.

“People have sacrificed many resources for hundreds of years. They gained independence 14 years ago and don’t want it to lose their resources again,” he added.

He explained that the Church would give its support to any civil society group, such as the People’s Forum, to improve the situation of its population, from the remotest village to national level.

Fernando da Costa, a member of the steering committee at the forum, explained, “Conference members agreed that Australia should dialogue with Timor-Leste and stop taking from this poor country.” He said he is happy with the forum decision to support Timor-Leste in the boundary dispute.

Timor-Leste and Australia are reported to have formed a council to discuss the maritime boundary in the context of the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The five-member team includes two Timorese and two Australian representatives, together with one from the UN. The team convened its first meeting in April and is expected to fulfill its mandate by July 2017.

The former prime minister and 1996 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, José Ramos-Horta, also commended the position taken by the People’s Forum.

He said that its decision reminded him of the support given to him during the 24 years of the Indonesian occupation by friends in Indonesia, The Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Europe, the United States of America and Australia.

“On behalf of the people of Timor-Leste, I thank everyone for the solidarity from overseas friends,” Ramos-Horta said.

The Sydney Morning Herald editorialised on July 15 that ultimately it is to Australia’s benefit to respect international law in order to live in an ordered society, but it noted that the law cannot be treated like a smorgasbord where you only pick up what you like the look of.

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