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Timor-Leste v Australia: Provisional Observations

Published on March 6, 2014        Author: 

As has already been reported in this forum, earlier this week the International Court of Justice issued an order indicating provisional measures in Questions Relating to the Seizure and Detention of Certain Documents and Data (Timor-Leste v Australia). The documents and data in question relate to ongoing arbitral proceedings between Timor-Leste and Australia. The documents were taken from the Canberra-based offices of a legal counsel to Timor-Leste by the Australian Secret Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) under a warrant issued by the Attorney-General of Australia.

On the whole, the order does not appear terribly exciting, but it does raise three issues worthy of some attention.

The first relates to the role of the Attorney-General. The Court, by twelve votes to four, ordered Australia to keep the documents it had seized under seal and not permit them to be used to the detriment of Timor-Leste while proceedings before the ICJ were under way. The Court indicated these measures despite the written undertakings of the Attorney as to the measures the Australian government was taking to safeguard the confidentiality of the documents. (To point out the obvious, this is the very same Attorney-General who authorised the seizure of the documents in the first place.)

While the majority of the ICJ deemed the Attorney-General’s undertakings insufficient, the Court had no difficulty in viewing them as binding under international law. The Court referred in this respect to a statement of the Agent of Australia that “the Attorney-General … [had] the actual and ostensible authority to bind Australia as a matter of both Australian and international law”. In other words, Australia conceded that, as a matter of international law, it was bound by the undertakings of its Attorney-General. Read the rest of this entry…