Australia says tribunal has no jurisdiction in maritime border row with East Timor

East Timor, one of the world’s most impoverished nations, is seeking to draw a border midway between the two countries that would give it more of the sea bed than under current agreements with its wealthy neighbour to the south

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 August, 2016, 8:20pm
UPDATED : Monday, 29 August, 2016, 11:03pm

East Timor on Monday urged an international tribunal to help resolve a dispute with Australia over a maritime border which cuts through lucrative oil and gas fields in the Timor Sea.

Australia has said it would argue the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) based in The Hague - the world’s oldest international tribunal - has no jurisdiction in the row.

But Dili said it “regretted” Canberra’s stand, and urged the five-judge bench in an opening public session to find if the court could take up the case and eventually rule.

“It is a national priority to secure our sovereign rights over the surrounding seas and the resources that lie therein, which hold the promise of a transformational development for our country,” representative Elisabeth Exposto told the court.

East Timor, a tiny nation which gained independence from Indonesian occupation in 2002, is impoverished and depends heavily on oil and gas exports.

It has been demanding that Australia renegotiate the maritime border, and Exposto insisted Dili wanted to do so in “an amicable and collaborative way.”

Lawyers told the PCA that most previous treaties on maritime boundaries were signed with former occupiers Indonesia, and no permanent maritime border currently existed between East Timor and Australia.

It appealed to the court to take up and finally settle the dispute under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Independence resistance hero Xanana Gusmao, a former prime minister, told the court that East Timor was just seeking what “is rightfully ours”.

“We have not come to The Hague asking for favours or special treatment. We have come to see our rights under international law,” said Gusmao, now a government minister.

Australia was to make its case later Monday, before the court then meets until Wednesday behind closed doors.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop confirmed earlier Monday her government would argue “that the commission does not have jurisdiction to conduct hearings on maritime boundaries.”

But she said in a joint statement with Attorney-General George Brandis that if the court “ultimately finds that it does have jurisdiction to hear matters on maritime boundaries, then its final report on that matter is not binding.”

This comes after 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.

The tribunal ruled in July that China’s extensive claims are invalid under a 1982 UN treaty, in a major setback for Beijing, which has ignored the decision.

Australia says it is committed to upholding existing treaty obligations with East Timor, which it says have benefited both countries.

Canberra says its current treaties with the tiny state are legally binding and in full accordance with international law.

But East Timor has accused Australia of spying to gain a commercial advantage during 2004 negotiations over the Timor Sea gas treaty, which covers a vast gasfield between the two nations worth billions of dollars. It wants the pact signed in 2006 torn up.

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

Additional reporting by Bloomberg and Associated Press