I Spy With My Little Eye….East Timor?

Australia ordered to cease spying on neighbor East Timor

Apparently the United States is not the only country accused of “spying” on other nations with the ICJ recently ordering Australia to cease its spying on East Timor. The small nation located in the Timor Sea right in between Australia and Asia won this landmark decision concerning over $40 billion of oil and gas reserves within the Timor Sea.

This decision is binding on both Australia and East Timor as they are both members of the ICJ. This decision is groundbreaking because it is the first time that the court has imposed restrictions on the spy agencies of one of the superpowers such as the intelligence community of the United States, Great Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. This is fundamental at a time when the international community has expressed concern about over-reach by Western intelligence agencies.

The Court found that Australia was not obligation to turn-over to East Timor the documents and electronic materials that it has collected but it was required to keep the documents under lock and key until further notice. This is contrary to the request of East Timor who longed for the documents to be returned and also requested a list of all parties that here given or had access to the privileged documents.

The Court accepted Australia’s claim that the documents were only collected for Australia’s national security and it would not be used for any other purposes. However, the Court did find that other than for national security purposes, there was “still a risk of release of the material which would be highly prejudicial.” The ICJ order noted that Australia had to ensure that the content of the secret material “is not in any or at any time used… to the disadvantage” of East Timor.

Do you think that the ICJ made the right call? Is this ruling going to change the way spying is perceived in the international community? Will this change the way states act towards each other?


The Sydney Morning Herald


  1. East Timor is a very small country whom many people, myself included, have never heard of. My first reaction was, why would Australia have to worry about security threats from a country so tiny? After further thought I realized that was exactly why there was a threat. East Timor’s access to oil and gas reserves, and presumably small national defense, could make it a target of larger countries. If this were to happen, its close proximity could be hazard to Australia. Political instability threatened by lawless organized groups was the main concern of Australia back in 2002. East Timor is also considered central to Australia’s relationship with Indonesia. According to Hugh White’s article on the security threat, many Indonesians believed Australia’s support in East Timor’s independence was, “to secure . . . a strategic foothold in their archipelago”.


  2. I would have to agree with Ms. Francois that this decision is a groundbreaking one. The recognition by the ICJ of unauthorized use of surveillance of other countries is sure to have an impact in the future. However, I find it troubling that Australia was not obligated to turn over the materials it has collected. While they allege that the documents were only used for the county’s security concerns and that the documents will not be accessed, other instances have shown that there is a fuzzy line between what are necessary materials for security purposes and what is not. I would think East Timor has a right to know what confidential information Australia is in possession of.
    I think that this ruling will have an effect on the way spying is perceived in the international community and how states act towards each other but I do not think the sanctions, or lack there of in this case will have a motivating effect as it would if the “spying” state was ordered to return obtained information or was fiscally punished.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *