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2 November 1999

Press Briefing



The mission of the Multinational Force in East Timor -- INTERFET - - was going well, and peace and security had been restored, Australia's Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, told correspondents at a Headquarters press conference this morning.

Explaining that he was in the United States to attend annual Australian-United States ministerial talks in Washington, he said he had taken the opportunity to come to New York for talks with United Nations officials regarding East Timor. The talks were particularly relevant in view of Indonesia's vote on the separation of East Timor from Indonesia, the election and appointment of a new administration in Jakarta, and the adoption of Security Council resolution 1272 (1999), which established INTERFET. He had met with the Secretary-General; with the Under- Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Bernard Miyet; with the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for East Timor and head of the United Nations Transitional Administration for East Timor (UNTAET), Sergio Vieira de Mello; and with the Permanent Representatives of the United States, Indonesia and Portugal.

He said that in his talks with the Secretary-General, he had registered his appreciation for the way the United Nations had handled the East Timor issue. They had agreed that the gains achieved by INTERFET should be maintained and that there should be a seamless transition between INTERFET and the United Nations peacekeeping operation. The target date for the handover was between mid-January and early February.

They had also agreed on the importance of strong and competent leadership for the peacekeeping operation so that it could carry on INTERFET's work. The Secretary-General would decide who would lead that operation. The leader would not necessarily be an Australian but could be from another country in the region. Australia would continue to be actively involved in the peacekeeping operation once INTERFET was transformed into a peacekeeping operation. Australia would continue to support the work of the United Nations in East Timor and to provide financial assistance to humanitarian efforts.

A correspondent asked how the leadership of the peacekeeping operation would be determined. Mr. Downer reiterated that the Secretary-General would make that decision, taking into account a range of different issues -- contributions to peacekeeping operations, the qualifications of individual personalities for the position of leadership, the views of the East Timorese, and regional sensitivities. If the Secretary-General wanted Australia to lead the mission, it would be happy to do so. If, however, the Secretary-General felt it would be more appropriate for another country to assume leadership, Australia would be comfortable with that decision as well.

Downer Press Conference - 2 - 2 November 1999

Had they discussed the issue of deploying more naval assets for repatriation purposes? a correspondent asked.

Mr. Downer said he had not addressed the number of naval or air assets that might be involved in trying to help the refugees. He pointed out that refugees could be repatriated across land as well. He remained, however, concerned that there were still many people in West Timor who wished to return to East Timor but were unable to do so. He expressed concern about the activities of militia in the refugee camps, which he hoped would cease. As of yesterday, he said, an estimated 35,000 people had returned to East Timor. It was hard to know how many were in West Timor. Estimates ranged from 100,000 to 250,000.

Had there been any discussion of Australia's overall commitment to the peacekeeping force? Australia had dominated INTERFET. Would that situation prevail in the peacekeeping force?

Mr. Downer replied that in the next phase, Australia's contribution would be smaller. It would provide around 1,700 troops for the peacekeeping operation, as compared to about 5,000 of the 9,000 INTERFET troops. Australia would also provide logistical support out of Darwin. Its contribution to INTERFET had been made at the request of the Secretary-General, because it had been the only country in a position to make a significant and early contribution. It had never been Australia's hope, aspiration or intention to maintain such a large number of troops, at very great expense, for any longer than was absolutely necessary.

In response to a further question, he said he thought that Mr. de Mello was an outstanding choice to lead the peacekeeping mission. He had a long record in that type of work and was a highly regarded official. The fact that he spoke Portuguese was an advantage in dealing with the leadership of East Timor.

What were the most serious problems facing East Timor, and what was on the Foreign Minister's agenda for the Washington talks? a correspondent asked.

As far as Washington was concerned, he said, there would be discussion about East Timor but they would also discuss broader regional issues as well as multilateral issues. The failure of the United States Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was a matter of deep disappointment to Australians. He recalled that Australia had brought the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty out of the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva to New York, where it had been endorsed by the General Assembly. By refusing the Administration's request to ratify the Treaty, the Senate had undermined the arms control agenda. It was difficult to make strong statements about Pakistani and Indian nuclear testing when the Senate refused to ratify the Treaty. What the Senate had done was most unhelpful, he said. "These are words that are coming from a stalwart ally of the United

Downer Press Conference - 3 - 2 November 1999

States, not from a country that has a history of political confrontation with the United States."

Regarding the priorities in East Timor, he said the biggest challenge was to get the refugees in West Timor back into East Timor. Although they were trickling back, he would like to see the environment improved to allow them to return more easily. Another issue was the humanitarian assistance that was required -- food, shelter and the reconstruction of East Timor. There would be ongoing assistance once the government was up and running.

A correspondent asked if Australia would renegotiate the Timor Gap Treaty on oil drilling. Would East Timor get any revenues from the drilling? And how the need to restore good relations with Indonesia conflict with Australia's role in East Timor?

Mr. Downer said he had spoken with Mr. de Mello about the Timor Gap Treaty. As the United Nations had taken over the administration of East Timor, it had automatically replaced Indonesia as the Treaty partner. Once East Timor became independent, the East Timorese would become the partner. There would have to be some consequential amendments made to the Treaty, and to the Timor Gap Authority which administered the Treaty. In time the East Timorese might propose renegotiations, and Australia would consider that question when the occasion arose. The revenue that Australia and Indonesia had received from the Timor Gap Treaty in recent times had been minimal. It was possible that with further investment, it would turn out to be "a nice little earner" for East Timor.

Continuing, he said that Indonesia and Australia had a mutual interest in maintaining a positive and constructive relationship. The relationship had gone through a strained period over the East Timor issue, but now that East Timor had transferred to the United Nations and the administration in Jakarta had changed, they could anticipate an improvement in the relationship. Today he had had a friendly and positive discussion with the Indonesian Permanent Representative to the United Nations. They had agreed that it would be a good idea to have a ministerial meeting to get the relationship back on track.

He went on to say that the East Timor issue had ambushed the Australia-Indonesia relationship repeatedly over the past century. Now there was an opportunity for a new relationship between equals based on mutual respect, between countries that respected each other's differences and understood their common destiny.

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