MARTIME DISPUTES

Hague court to arbitrate in East Timor-Australia maritime border dispute

Australia had previously argued that the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) based in The Hague - the world’s oldest international tribunal - had no jurisdiction in the row

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 September, 2016, 8:05pm
UPDATED : Monday, 26 September, 2016, 11:02pm

The tribunal that ruled China’s extensive claims to the South China Sea were invalid is taking up another regional sea border row.

In a blow to Australia, the world’s oldest international court has agreed to take up a case pitting tiny East Timor against its giant neighbour stepping into a decade-long dispute over a maritime border which cuts through lucrative oil and gas fields.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) “held that it was competent to continue with the conciliation process” initiated by East Timor against Australia in April, the court based in The Hague said.

East Timor last month urged the panel - the world’s oldest arbitration tribunal - to help end the dispute that has soured relations between the two countries, saying negotiations have so far failed.

Australia in return argued it had no jurisdiction in the battle as Canberra had already signed a treaty with Dili ruling out recourse to the court.

The PCA has not shied away from stepping into complex diplomatic battles.

Earlier this year it sparked fury in Beijing by ruling in a case brought by the Philippines that China’s claims to a vast swathe of the resource-rich South China Sea were invalid. It was a major setback for Beijing, which has ignored the decision.

Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop was chided in February by China for saying the Philippines had the right to take China to the same international arbitration over their conflicting South China Sea claims.

East Timor, which only gained its independence from Indonesian occupation in 2002 and is an impoverished nation heavily dependent on oil and gas exports, welcomed Monday’s decision by the tribunal.

“Just as we fought so hard and suffered so much for our independence, Timor-Leste will not rest until we have our sovereign rights over both land and sea,” the country’s independence resistance hero and former prime minister Xanana Gusmao said in a statement.

Bishop said Canberra “accepts the commission’s decision and will continue to engage in good faith as we move to the next phase of the conciliation process.”

“We are committed to working together to strengthen our relationship and overcome our differences in the Timor sea,” she added.

Canberra’s lawyers had argued it had also initiated talks with Dili through an exchange of letters in 2003 to try to solve the dispute.

The tribunal said the exchange of letters between Canberra and Dili “did not constitute an agreement... because the exchange was not... legally binding.”

And the PCA’s five-member Conciliation Commission ruled the dispute should be settled under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, rather than the 2006 treaty - called Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea (CMATS) - which covers the vast Greater Sunrise gas field lying between the two nations.

That treaty set out a 50-50 split of proceeds from the vast maritime energy fields between Australia and East Timor estimated at some A$40 billion (US$36 billion).

East Timor has also called for CMATS to be torn up after accusing Australia of spying to gain commercial advantage during the 2004 negotiations.

Dili however officially dropped its spying case against Canberra before the UN’s International Court of Justice in June 2015 after Australia returned sensitive documents.

Talks between Timor and Australia will now continue over the next year, the tribunal based in The Hague said, but it stressed the meetings will be “largely in a confidential setting.”

The commission will be involved “in a process for creating a positive relationship between the two sides to try and bring them together to the table,” said Aaron Matta, senior researcher at the Hague Institute for Global Justice think-tank.

Agence France-Presse and Reuters