Australia says tribunal has no jurisdiction over East Timor border

SYDNEY, Australia – Australia will argue that an arbitration body due to meet in The Hague later Monday, August 29, has no jurisdiction to settle a dispute with East Timor over their maritime boundary, officials said.

East Timor, a tiny nation whose economy depends heavily on oil and gas exports, has been demanding that Australia renegotiate the border which cuts through lucrative oil and gas fields in the Timor Sea.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop confirmed Australia would take part in the meeting of the conciliation commission, which is part of the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

East Timor had demanded that the meeting be held, under the terms of the UN's Convention on the Law of the Sea.

"We will argue that the commission does not have jurisdiction to conduct hearings on maritime boundaries," she said in a joint statement with Attorney-General George Brandis.

Australia would abide by the commission's finding "as to whether it has jurisdiction to hear matters on maritime boundaries".

But the statement added that Australia did not consider its final report would be binding.

"If the commission ultimately finds that it does have jurisdiction to hear matters on maritime boundaries, then its final report on that matter is not binding," the ministers said.

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 torn up. 

Australia allegedly used an aid program as cover to bug East Timor's cabinet offices so it could listen to discussions about the treaty.

The agreement was signed between Canberra and Dili in 2006, 4 years after East Timor – with Australian help – won independence following years of brutal Indonesian occupation.

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

But the parallel case before the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the oldest global institution for the settlement of international disputes, continues. –