By Jamie Smyth in Sydney
The UN’s highest court has ordered Australia not to spy on communications between East Timor and its legal advisers in a dispute over a maritime agreement that could unlock billions of dollars in gas revenues for one of Asia’s poorest countries.
The International Court of Justice in The Hague has also blocked Australia from making use of documents and electronic material allegedly seized by its spy agency from a lawyer working for East Timor on its maritime legal case.
In a ruling on provisional measures, the court said the seized documents should be kept under seal. It ordered Australia not to “interfere in any way in communications” between East Timor and its legal advisers.
The ruling is the latest step in East Timor’s “David and Goliath” legal battle to unpick a 2006 maritime deal with Canberra that gives both countries an equal share of reserves in the Greater Sunrise gasfields, worth up to $40bn.
The case is focusing renewed attention on allegations of connections between national spy agencies and commercial interests in the wake of disclosures by US whistleblower Edward Snowden, a former US National Security Agency contractor.
The ruling marks the first time that the UN court has imposed what amounts to restrictions on one of the spy agencies of the “five eyes” intelligence community of the US, UK, New Zealand, Australia and Canada.
The case relates to allegations by East Timor, also known as Timor-Leste, that Canberra ordered intelligence officers to bug its cabinet offices in order to obtain commercial advantage in negotiations for the maritime deal.
The agreement was struck in 2006 at a time when the country was recovering from violence sparked by its 1999 vote for independence from Indonesia.
Last year when it says it became aware of the alleged espionage, East Timor initiated a case at the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which is also in The Hague, and sought the annulment of the bilateral treaty with Canberra.
The ICJ is the principal legal organ of the UN and was set up to settle disputes between member countries. If the court finds that a case is under its jurisdiction and issues a ruling, states generally abide by its decision.
Australia and Indonesia sealed a maritime boundary agreement concerning the Timor Sea in 1972 before the Greater Sunrise gasfields were discovered in the now disputed area in 1974.
The agreement was disputed by then Portuguese-controlled East Timor, which was subsequently invaded by Indonesia in 1975.
A joint venture between Australia’s Woodside, ConocoPhilips, Royal Dutch Shell and Osaka Gas has the rights to develop the fields, which hold contingent reserves of 5.1tn cubic feet of gas and 225.9m barrels of condensate.