Australia and East Timor: among spying scandals and contention for resources

Image by Isabel Nolasco, CC BY-SA 4.0

An overview on East Timor

Amongst all Southeast-Asian countries, East Timor is not exactly the most notorious. The country, sometimes also referred to as Timor-Leste, is in fact easily outshined by all its immediate neighbours, namely Indonesia and Australia. Indeed, East Timor is not only substantially smaller in size, but it is also a fairly young nation. International recognition was not granted to the East Timorese until September 27th, 2002, when the United Nations General Assembly finally admitted Timor Leste as an official UN member.

Independence didn’t however come without a price though. During the many years of Indonesian occupation, the local population was forced through blood-soaked armed conflicts, mass deportations, and forced famines. The socio-economic consequences of 27 such years of political oppression were, of course, disastrous. Key infrastructures were razed to the ground, as scorched-earth policies throughout the country involved blowing-up and dismantling bridges, schools and telecommunication facilities. As such, once an independent nation, East Timor registered alarming human development values. In 2013 roughly 50% of Timorese kids under 5 were suffering from chronic malnutrition and one year later, in 2014, more than 41% of the population was estimated to live below the national poverty line. 

However, the island of Timor is far from being poor in resources. Indeed, beneath the adjacent Timor Sea, lie plenty of reserves of crude oil and gas. The question comes thus naturally, how can a nation so naturally prosperous rank only 131st by HDI? The answer, as for many postcolonial countries, mainly splits in two components, corruption and the inability to profit from such resources. 

Timorese-Australian relationship and the Timor Sea Agreement

In May 2002, the Timorese and Australian governments signed the so-called Timor Sea Treaty, which divides the gas and oilfields of the Timor Gap between the two countries. Such division, however, does not follow the maritime median line, as in accordance with international law, instead it provides with the creation of a shared area of seabed, where both countries can exploit hydrocarbon reserves.

Over the years, many international observers pointed out how the lines drawn by the Timor Sea Treaty cause major resources, like the Greater Sunrise field, to fall in such common territory, even though technically located within Timorese projected Exclusive Economic Zone. As a result, the Australian government has been repeatedly accused of taking an unfair advantage from such agreements at the expense of their impoverished neighbor.

For Instance, the Labor and Green party in Canberra were particularly outspoken and critical of Timorese-Australian relationships from the very beginning. In 2003, a transcript of the negotiations between the two governments was allegedly leaked, showing the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, using heavy-handed tactics to persuade the Timorese PM Mari Alkatiri. Consequently, the transcript sparked several accusations of “bullying” and “blackmailing” throughout Australian Opposition parties. To further exacerbate contentions, Australian claims were shaped around the Timor Gap Treaty, signed in 1989 with the controversial figure of Indonesian General Suharto.

The espionage scandal

Once some form of political stability was reached in newborn Timor-Leste, the Timorese Government reopened negotiations with Australia, condemning previous agreements as unfair and resulting from abuse of power from Australian authorities. East Timor proposed the intervention of the International Court of Justice to set the boundary dispute. The Australian Government responded by withdrawing from the Court’s maritime boundary jurisdiction, hence nullifying any counterpart’s attempt to pursue the case.

This implied that any further dispute in the immediate future would have to be discussed strictly by the two governments. Therefore, to maintain their high ground in negotiations, Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) was instructed to undertake eavesdropping operations in Timor. ASIS operatives disguised as aid workers and infiltrated the Palacio Governo in Dili, installing listening devices in the Timorese Cabinet.

Negotiations continued until May 2005, when the two nations agreed to rearrange revenue sharing out of the Greater Sunshine oilfield, granting a greater share to the Timorese. Nonetheless, East Timor grudgingly complied to Australian demands to not redraw maritime borders. Timorese authorities mainly complied because in desperate need for oil revenues, as they still required huge sums to rebuild infrastructures and recover from the damages of the Indonesian occupation.

In 2007, former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, accountable for the actions of espionage in Dili, took up a lucrative consultancy position with the energy giant Woodside Petroleum, the Australian company licensed to the oilfields in the Timor Gap.

This prompted a former ASIS officer to blow the whistle under the pseudonym of “Witness K”. As a direct consequence, news of the spying scandal swiftly reached international media.

Legal and Political Repercussions

In 2013, emerging from multiple years of internal turmoil, East Timor decided to take its concerns to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, asserting their request to withdraw from previous agreements with the Australian Government. Moreover, to further back up their claims, Timor Leste required Witness K to testify to the Court.

Australian authorities acted quickly; they cancelled Witness K’s passport, hence preventing them from reaching The Hague, and prosecuted both them and their lawyer in a secret court. In the meanwhile, Australian has denied, as foreseeable, any jurisdiction on the matter to the Court in The Hague. Furthermore, Australian Federal Police and ASIO raided both the defendant’s private habitations and offices in the name of national security. Several confidential dossiers were confiscated, many of which containing potentially useful information to further strengthen Timorese claims.

In 2014 a ruling of the ICJ ordered Australia to cease spying on their Southeast Asian neighbor and it additionally arranged for the sealing of all documents raided in the previous months. This inevitably led authorities in Canberra to readdress their stance. An agreement was reached with the Timorese to renegotiate deals and to return any seized data. Consequently, Timor Leste withdrew the case before the Permanent Court of Arbitration and aimed at normalizing relationships.

Current situation

Following the 2018 Maritime Boundaries Treaty, borders between the two countries have officially been sorted out along the maritime median line. Additionally, revenue shares from the Greater Sunrise fields, which now sit on top of the international border, have been adjusted to a projected 70/80% in favor of Timor Leste.

Although some improvements were made, the issue today is still far from being solved. Over the years Australia has been estimated to have subtracted from East Timor way more than what it has given in foreign aid; and the 2018 agreements didn’t but in fact confirm that no compensation will be given for past exploitation. Therefore, billions of dollars have been secured in the bag for Australia, even though originated through allegedly illicit operations.

In the meanwhile, humanitarian conditions are still shockingly distressing in Timor Leste, which still experiences Asia’s second highest infant mortality rate and worrying rates of malnutrition.

Furthermore, Australia’s internal juridical tribulations are not over yet. If it is true that distension between Australia and Timor was made possible, the same cannot be said for Witness K and their prosecutors. In June 2018, the same year of the Maritime Boundaries Treaty, the Office of Public Prosecutions filed criminal charges against both Witness K and their lawyer over disclosing national secrets. To this day, as of November 2020, pre-trials proceedings are still continuing, with many of the hearings being held in complete secrecy. 

This whole issue unquestionably sheds a light of doubt on Australian authorities’ ethical stances. It raises the question of why local law does not provide whistleblowers’ protection programs for secret services staff (although, technically, Witness K is not a whistleblower); but what strikes the most is the relentless prosecution against these two complainants, while those who allegedly capitalized on the misfortune of the Timorese are still left unquestioned.

Vice President

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