Rui Maria De Araújo: Timor-Leste a 'Triumph of the International System'

Asia Society's Executive Vice President Tom Nagorski and Yale Law School Professor Harold Koh listen to Timor Leste's Prime Minister, Rui Maria De Araújo, at a roundtable discussion at Asia Society on June 28, 2016. (Ellen Wallop / Asia Society)

Timor-Leste’s tumultuous road to independence, from fragility to stability, was the topic of an address from H.E. Dr. Rui Maria De Araújo, Prime Minister of Timor-Leste, at an Asia Society Policy Institute discussion in New York on June 28.

At a time when international institutions increasingly find themselves the subject of criticism, De Araújo hailed the critical role they continue to play for his country. “Now in peace as it was in war, we turn to the community of nations to complete our journey to independence,” he said.

Timor-Leste “invests great faith in the ability of the international architecture to help resolve differences peacefully and thoughtfully among neighbors and friends”, he said in what would be a consistent thread throughout the roundtable discussion, which also included remarks from Harold Koh, Professor of International Law at Yale University.

Timor-Leste achieved independence in 2002 after more than a quarter of a century of occupation and internal conflict, in what was described by De Araújo as “a triumph of the international system – a moment of vindication [against] those who at that time questioned the work of the United Nations.”

The nation is relying on this international architecture once again, as it seeks to negotiate a permanent maritime boundary with Australia. Timor-Leste is arguing for an equidistant boundary between the two nations. Australia maintains that a recent resource sharing agreement between the states deferred establishment of a permanent boundary by 50 years. At stake are billions of dollars in petroleum royalty revenues in the Timor Sea, including the $40 billion Greater Sunrise project.

To De Araújo and the Timorese, the dispute reflects the next phase in their claim for sovereignty. At a recent conference in Dili on the eve of the country’s 14th independence day, he said “the maritime boundary is a sovereign issue for [Timor-Leste]. It’s an issue of rights. It’s an issue of international law.”

The Prime Minister was speaking at the Asia Society as part of a visit to the United States aimed at improving bilateral relations and reengaging with those in the U.S. policy community that had closely followed and supported the independence movement.

Harold Koh, who was U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor when the UN administered East Timor, said that the United States should pay close attention to this small island state, because Timor-Leste is a microcosm of three broader movements that are playing out in international politics.

First, he emphasized that the critical transition of smaller, newly formed states such as Timor-Leste, South Sudan, Libya, and Kosovo toward political development and true independence remains incomplete. Noting that “the mere act of declaration does not make a stable statehood in a regional system,” Koh said that it takes an “international village” to support fledgling states on this path. He added that Timor-Leste is perhaps the most successful of these states, and given the investments already made by the international community into Timor-Leste, the world should see its political development through to maturity.

“In the Asian region, it is a time of considerable instability and national prerogatives, and increasingly this is being contested in the seas,” Koh said in his remarks, referring to the second issue of maritime disputes and how Timor-Leste is enmeshed in regional geopolitics. He noted that, increasingly, efforts are being made to bring regional alliances to bear, as well as the rule of law, to delineate entitlements.

The focus has recently been to energize ASEAN to take the lead in these regional contests. Koh remarked that “the importance of alliance politics could not be clearer than it is today”, and referring back to Timor-Leste’s neighbourhood, said that the extent to which Timor-Leste, Australia and Indonesia can work on their relationship will be a critical factor to the regional balancing act.

Koh rounded out his analysis by commenting on how Timor-Leste’s maritime boundary dispute is an important case for international maritime law. He remains of the view that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the related International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea are working successfully, although he added that the compulsory conciliation called by Timor-Leste will be an important test to prove that UNCLOS can work in non-adjudicatory ways, and so avoid “gunboat diplomacy”.

De Araújo stressed that his nation had faith in diplomacy and the international system, but added that “If this can’t be solved at the negotiating table, why would anyone believe that far more complicated challenges… can be resolved?”