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NZ Stance on Timor 'a headache' for Australia

Sydney Morning Herald - February 11, 1997

Craig Skehan – New Zealand had created a foreign policy "headache" for Australia by revealing that it did not believe Indonesia's incorporation of East Timor was irreversible, according to a confidential foreign affairs department cable.

Australia officially recognised Indonesia's post-invasion incorporation of East Timor and signed an agreement with Jakarta to jointly exploit Timor Gap oil reserves with Indonesia, despite an international legal challenge.

As a result of the row between Canberra and Wellington, Australia's Ambassador to New Zealand, Mr Geoff Miller, was directed to pass on Australia's concerns at a senior level.

A February 3 cable to the Australian High Commission in Wellington notes pointedly that the New Zealand Foreign Minister, Mr Don McKinnon, had not informed his Australian counterpart, Mr Downer, of the stand in relation the incorporation issue.

This followed media reports quoting Mr McKinnon as saying NZ would no longer use the word "irreversible" in relation to the incorporation of East Timor by military force.

"Assuming the report is true, we are surprised at the lack of consultation with us on the matter, especially as Mr McKinnon has had opportunities to discuss the issue with Mr Downer," the cable states.

"Please approach [the NZ] Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade at a senior level to seek a read-out on current NZ policy towards East Timor.

"If the thrust of press reporting is confirmed, we would like you to register our displeasure at the failure of the New Zealanders to keep us abreast of their thinking on what they know is an important issue for us."

This was a reference to political attacks on successive Australian governments for not actively standing up for the rights of East Timorese to self-determination.

The Australian High Commissioner said in a cable to Canberra last Wednesday that a senior NZ foreign ministry official, Mr Win Cochrane, had told him that the decision in relation to East Timor had been made some time ago but not publicly announced.

Mr Cochrane had said he believed the the word irreversible was too "rigid" given that Indonesia was still engaged in discussions under United Nations auspices on the future of East Timor.

"We are inclined to believe the New Zealanders when they say there has not been an intentional change of policy on East Timor," Mr Miller said.

"Unfortunately, by making known that they no longer choose to use the world "irreversible', they are unlikely to be able to play down the perception that will be encouraged by Horta and other activists that there has in fact been a change."

This was a reference to the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Mr Jose Ramos Horta, who has called on governments around the world to oppose Indonesia's incorporation of East Timor and alleged continuing human rights violations.

"As Cochrane wryly commented, they have been hoist on their petard (and given us a headache to boot)," Mr Miller said in the cable.