Global court takes up Timor Leste, Australia sea border row

East Timorese students living in Indonesia attending a rally in front of the Australian embassy in Jakarta on March 24, 2016.
East Timorese students living in Indonesia attending a rally in front of the Australian embassy in Jakarta on March 24, 2016. PHOTO: AFP
East Timorese activists attending a rally outside the Australian embassy in Dili on Feb 23, 2016.
East Timorese activists attending a rally outside the Australian embassy in Dili on Feb 23, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

THE HAGUE (AFP) – An international arbitration court agreed Monday (Sept 26) to take up a decade-long maritime border dispute between Australia and Timor Leste which cuts through lucrative oil and gas fields in the Timor Sea.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration “held that it was competent to continue with the arbitration process” initiated by Timor Leste against Canberra in April, the court based in The Hague said in a statement.

Timor Leste 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.

Dili on Monday welcomed the tribunal’s decision.

“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.

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.

But a five-member PCA conciliation commission ruled the dispute should be settled under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, rather than the treaty, called Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea (CMATS) and signed in 2006, which covers the vast Greater Sunrise gas field lying between the two nations.

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

Timor Leste, which only gained its independence from Indonesian occupation in 2002, is an impoverished nation heavily dependent on oil and gas exports.

Talks between the two countries 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.”