How Australia Overplayed Its Hand in the Timor Sea

In 1976, the Australian ambassador to Indonesia wrote that, in deciding whether to support the right of the Timorese people to self-determination or to instead accede to Indonesia’s annexation, Australia faced a choice between “Wilsonian idealism” and “Kissengerian realism.” For reasons having a lot to do with petroleum, Australia decided to go with what it saw as the latter option.

Today, the Timor Sea dispute remains unresolved, and it is clear that Australia still has not decided to go with the “Wilsonian idealism” option. But if Australia thinks that its strategy has instead been one of “Kissengerian realism,” then it is sadly flattering itself. Australia’s strategy isn’t “realist” – it’s petty bullying motivated by a very narrow political economy concern.

The short-term results for Australia have been somewhat favorable, if mixed, but there is reason to doubt that this strategy will ultimately be in Australia’s long-term interests. Thus far, Australia has now spent over forty years pursuing a sovereignty claim that was long ago discarded by international law, and, so far, its reach has continually exceeded its grasp.

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The Historical Context of Australia’s Political and Legal Strategy in the Timor Sea

In 1974, with the prospect of an Indonesian annexation of Timor on the horizon, Australia faced an important question: would Australia receive more favorable access to the gas and oil fields in the Timor Sea if Timor had an (a) Portuguese government, (b) Indonesian government, or (c) independent government?

At the time, Australia believed the answer was (b): an Indonesian Timor would give Australia the best outcome when it came to negotiating a seabed boundary in the Timor Sea. In a 1974 Policy Planning Paper, the Australian government reasoned that, since Indonesia had already given Australia such a favorable result in a similar seabed boundary negotiation, Indonesia would likely give Australia a similarly favorable deal for the seabed territory offshore from Timor. As a result, Australia was cautious about entering into any final seabed boundary delineations with Portugal. The political situation was likely to change, and there would be advantages in waiting for a more favorable government to gain control of the island territory:

We should press ahead with negotiations with Portugal on the Portuguese Timor seabed boundary, but bear in mind that the Indonesians would probably be prepared to accept the same compromise as they did in the negotiations already completed on the seabed boundary between our two countries. Such a compromise would be more acceptable to us than the present Portuguese position. For precisely this reason however, we should be careful not to be seen as pushing for self-government or independence for Portuguese Timor or for it to become part of Indonesia, as this would probably be interpreted as evidence of our self-interest in the seabed boundary dispute rather than a genuine concern for the future of Portuguese Timor. We should continue to keep a careful check on the activities of Australian commercial firms in Portuguese Timor.

(Policy Planning Paper, Canberra, May 3, 1974).

In other words, Australia should continue to engage in negotiations with Portugal to avoid the appearance of any impropriety, but it should take care that the negotiations did not actually culminate in an agreement.

Although Australia’s economic and foreign interests were best served by an Indonesian Timor, it was for precisely that reason that Australia wanted to avoid any appearance that it had any stake in Timor’s outcome. If seen to support Indonesia’s annexation of Timor, it would likely be viewed as doing so for self-serving commercial reasons. At the same time, neither did Australia wish to be seen as supporting a Portuguese Timor or an independent Timor, because doing so might have the effect of promoting either of those outcomes. Taking such a position (or appearing to take such a position) would also pose a risk of complicating its relationship with Indonesia.

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A Timeline of Events Leading up to Timor-Leste’s ICJ Claim Against Australia

Last week, the International Court of Justice heard three days of argument concerning Timor-Leste’s pending request for provisional measures in Questions relating to the Seizure and Detention of Certain Documents and Data (Timor-Leste v. Australia). The case was brought by Timor-Leste following Australia’s execution of a search warrant at the office of Timor-Leste’s Canberra-based attorney. Australia claimed that the warrant was appropriately issued for national security purposes, and used it to obtain extensive electronic and paper files concerning Timor-Leste’s pending arbitration against Australia before a Hague tribunal. In that arbitration, Timor-Leste is seeking to overturn a 2007 treaty between Australia and Timor-Leste, as a result of Australia’s espionage on Timor-Leste’s internal communications during the course of negotiations.

Australia claims that it was justified in seizing Timor-Leste’s legal files because Timor-Leste’s evidence of Australia’s espionage was provided by a retired Australian spy. That spy, dubbed “Officer X,” informed Timor-Leste of the 2004 bugging operation as a result of his belief that the surveillance had been conducted for improper commercial purposes, rather than national security interests.

It is a complicated and messy situation, both legally and politically, but the significance of Australia’s seizure of Timor-Leste’s legal files, as well as Australia’s prior espionage against Timor-Leste’s government, can only be understood in the context of the history of the past treaty negotiations between the two countries. To give some background for future posts concerning the legal claims being raised by Timor-Leste and Australia, provided here is a timeline of events leading up to the recent case before the ICJ.

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Drunk Australian Tossed Out of Pub, Goes to Ride 16-foot Crocodile, Then Returns to Pub

The title says it all, really. A man in Western Australia decided that, although he was too drunk to be allowed to stay in a bar, he was in fine condition to go hop a fence at a wildlife park and try to ride on a saltwater crocodile. Although injured, he survived:

He received surgery to serious wounds to his leg and is recovering in hospital, police say.

He had been chucked out of a pub in the town of Broome for being too drunk.

The man, who was not named by the police, climbed over a fence and tried to sit on the 800kg (1,800lb) saltwater crocodile.

“Fatso has taken offence to this and has spun around and bit this man on the right leg,” Sgt Roger Haynes of Broome police told journalists.

“The crocodile has let him go and he’s been able to scale the fence again and leave the wildlife park.” …

[Said the park’s owner,] “If it had been warmer and Fatso was more alert, we would have been dealing with a fatality.”

Then again, it appears from the story there are no actual witnesses to this feat — the man just disappeared from the pub, and then came back a little while later after some creature had taken a couple chunks out of his leg. I wonder how they’re so sure about which crocodile it was that the guy apparently mistook for a rodeo pony. Unless there is some further proof that it was actually Fatso, I’m wonder a bit if the bites, in reality, did not come from one of the park’s full-grown salties, but rather were inflicted by something much smaller.

After all, if you were stupid enough to drunkenly climb into a cage with a baby crocodile or an aggressive monitor, and got bitten by it, wouldn’t you later try to claim that you’d taken on the biggest, baddest croc possible? I know I would.


The Japanese Prostitutes-for-Whaleburgers Programme

Tomorrow, the International Whaling Commission meets for the beginning of its 5-day conference in Agadir, Morocco. The annual conference will be of particular importance this year, due to Australia’s decision to move ahead with its claims before the ICJ against Japan, based upon the latter’s whaling activities.

Although there has been a moratorium on whaling since 1986, Japan (as well as Iceland and Norway) have continued whaling under the “research exception” of the Convention for the Regulation of Whaling.

Article VIII, section 1 of the Convention provides as follows:

Notwithstanding anything contained in this Convention any Contracting Government may grant to any of its nationals a special permit authorizing that national to kill, take and treat whales for purposes of scientific research subject to such restrictions as to number and subject to such other conditions as the Contracting Government thinks fit, and the killing, taking, and treating of whales in accordance with the provisions of this Article shall be exempt from the operation of this Convention.

So it’s not clear cut who has got the better side of the argument, here. “Scientific research” is not defined elsewhere in the Convention, and, if this case does make it up to the ICJ, the Court will have a fairly complex question of treaty interpretation to grapple with.

Japan is, currently, hunting whales for what can fairly be characterized as commercial purposes. However, Japan is also using the whales it kills to conduct research, through its Institute of Cetacean Research. Although debate continues about the necessity of using lethal methods for whale research, it would not be accurate to characterize Japan’s whale research programs as merely a front for the commercial operations — the research on the whale populations is genuine.

On the other hand, the principle of good faith in treaty interpretation would seem to prevent construing the Convention to allow the “research” exception to encompass any sort of whale harvesting that also incidentally includes a research component. The ICJ will have a difficult task before them, in determining whether or not the Japanese research whaling fleet is authorized as a matter of law.

But if the judicial process does not go Japan’s way, there’s always the political method. And, if things go the way the pro-whaling nations hope, the upcoming IWC conference in Morocco could ultimately lift the whaling moratorium, rendering Australia’s claims moot.

I’ve talked before on this blog about Nauru’s practice of selling its recognition power. China and Abkhazia both essentially purchased Nauru’s recognition of their statehood, through the use of foreign aid. A similar situation has now developed with regards to the IWC, and Japan is engaging in very direct forms of diplomacy in order to secure more votes for the pro-whaling coalition.

Currently, 88 states are parties to the Convention, and any state that wishes to join may do so. Most of these countries, however, are not themselves whaling states, nor do any whales live in their jurisdictions. Eight of member states are actually landlocked territories. For countries that have no strong interest in whales or whaling, the decision of whether to prohibit or allow whaling on international waters is a decision controlled less by State preference, and more upon which option will garner them the most diplomatic favor. As a result, the vote-buying has been pretty blatant.

The Caribbean states all largely vote along with Japan on whaling issues, and receive large amounts of aid from Japan in return. The Pacific is more divided, as some of the countries there have been wooed by Japan, while others have been bought out by Australia and New Zealand. The Marshall Islands and Kiribati are among those Pacific Island states who receive aid from Japan and vote with the pro-whaling bloc in return.

What is interesting about Japan’s purchasing of pro-whaling votes, however, is the form of compensation offered. Although some of the compensation consists of fairly standard foreign aid packages, or the paying of smaller states’ IWC fees, or covering the travel costs for their diplomats to attend the IWC conference, some of Japan’s tactics are more questionable.

Other forms of compensation include providing prostitutes to foreign diplomats, giving government officials generous “discretionary expenses funds” for their visits to Japan or IWC conferences, and providing diplomats with lavish vacations. Although generally I disagree with those who characterize this sort of compensation-based diplomacy as a form of “bribery,” in this case, the label does seem to fit.

Japan’s justification for this particular brand of diplomacy is that the IWC is abusing its mission by failing to have adequate membership requirements. Some Japanese politicians go as far as to argue that only pro-whaling nations should be permitted to join the IWC, because the goal of the IWC is to regulate the harvesting of whales — and countries that do not harvest any do not have any legitimate interest in setting that number.

They do have something of a point. The object and purpose of the Whaling Convention clearly indicates an intention to protect whale stocks in order to create a sustainable global whaling industry. The purpose of the IWC was not to work towards the complete elimination of whaling, but rather to ensure the preservation of the earth’s whale resources so that commercial harvesting could continue — and by allowing in any country that wants to join, the IWC is letting states with no economic or territorial interest in whales to exert control over states like Japan.

But the prevalence of schemes through which smaller states sell out there international-law-making-power in exchange for cash poses something of a long term dilemma for customary international law. CIL is developed through a combination of state action and opinio juris, but for international legal issues in which “state action” is only conducted by a bare handful of states — such as with whaling — or where there state action consists of a nebulous act of “recognition”, having opinio juris be determined by who’s writing the biggest checks undermines the credibility of the whole process.


“Even conceding these points, such an appointee would not stay young and attractive for ever and later on could well become a problem.”

Via Letters of Note, Why Women Should Not Be Trade Commissioners. The following document was written in 1963 to the Director of Trade Commissioner Services as a protest against the possible appointment of a woman as an Australian trade commissioner.

Although the woman, Beryl Wilson, was later appointed, the Deputy Director of the Department of Trade and Industry (now DFAT) stressed that her appointment should not be treated ‘in any sense as a precedent.’

The Australian government has made the letter available here. Go to the cut below for a transcript of it.

I am absolutely fascinated that something like this could have happened as late as 1963; it feels like a relic from a time beyond current human memory, or from my grandparents’ era at the very earliest, but instead it was written while my parents were very much alive. In only 45 years, Australian (and American) culture has changed so much that the document not only reads like satire, but that if it were penned today, the writer would most likely be fired for it.

In particular, I love how the letter frankly states that the only woman who could possibly-maybe-conceivably-potentially be of any remote use is a “young and attractive one,” but because she will turn into a nasty old battleaxe eventually, that could be a problem.

Also interesting from the letter is point vi, “If we engaged single graduates as trainees, most of them would probably marry within five years”, is a reference to the Public Service Act 1901, which prohibited married women from working in Public Service. (See for instance Ruby Payne-Scott, one of the early developers of radio astronomy, who worked for the Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organization until her secret marriage was discovered and she was discharged.) The Australian Federal government did not repel the marriage bar until 1966.

My favorite line (that is, aside from the absolutely amazing “battleaxe” comment) is this one: “It is difficult to visualise them as Trade Commissioners, firstly because they could not mix nearly as freely with businessmen as men do. Most mens clubs, for instance, do not allow women members[.]” It forthrightly recognizes that such men’s-only spaces are a barrier to women in the work place — which is itself correct, though of course the letter writer draws the conclusion that this means women should go and that the discriminatory institutions should remain.

Click here to see a transcript of the letter