Posted by: Andi Arsana | June 17, 2008

Singapore won Pedra Branca: What’s Next?

See also this article published in the Jakarta Post.
A big decision has been made. The International Court of Justice decided to award Pedra Branca (PB, aka. Pulau Batu Puteh) to Singapore on 23 May 2008. However, it was not a complete defeat for Malaysia since it is given Middle Rocks (MR). Meanwhile, the sovereignty over the third feature disputed, South Ledge (SL), has not yet been decided.

The case of sovereignty over PB, MR, and SL was brought before the Court in 2003 by Malaysia and Singapore. The three features located in the eastern entrance of Singapore Strait have been subject to dispute for approximately 28 years. Public hearing was done in The Hague, The Netherlands, on 6-23 November 2007 where the two states addressed their arguments. The decision was made by vote approximately six months later. PB is considered as the main feature in the dispute, so that it makes sense when the decision is called as Singapore’s victory.

This case, to an extent, may remind us to a similar case involving Sipadan and Ligitan, decided in 2002 between Indonesia and Malaysia. Unlike the case where Malaysia won the two small islands, in this current decision, Malaysia had a bitter pill to swallow. However, no matter what the result is, this is a significant progress concerning sovereignty dispute resolution made by countries. It is interesting to know how ICJ could finally decide the sovereignty over these disputed features.

The Court initially concluded that the sovereignty over PB was, in the earlier time, with the Johor Sultanate, which is now part of Malaysia. After observing the history of Johor Sultanate and the Dutch and British activities regarding control of South East Asia and also the role of the East India Company, the Court concluded “the Sultanate of Johor had original title to Pedra Branca/Pulau Batu Puteh.” (para. 69 of the Judgment) Therefore, this conclusion was also an objection to Singapore’s previous argument that PB was terra nullius (ownerless), so that it was eligible for a “lawful occupation”.

However this initial conclusion did not lead to a decision to award PB to Malaysia. One of the reasons is the letter dated on September 21st, 1953 sent by the Acting State Secretary stating that “the Johore Government does not claim ownership of Pedra Branca.” (para. 196 of the Judgment) This letter was a reply to a letter sent previously by Colonial Secretary of Singapore to the British Adviser to the Sultan of Johor concerning status of the island. This letter of September 21st, 1953 became the key for the Court to conclude that Sultan of Johor disclaimed sovereignty over PB and then concludes that “the authorities in Singapore had no reason to doubt that the United Kingdom had sovereignty over the island.” (para. 233 of the Judgment)

The reason of the Court in deciding the case may be debatable, but the decision is final and binding. Like it or not, both parties should accept it. This has, of course, been agreed upon prior to bringing the case before the Court. If the decision is unquestionable, so what is next? The interesting step to watch is the delimitation of maritime boundaries in the Singapore Strait in the aftermath of the big decision by the Court.

It has been widely understood that the strait where those three features located is a busy shipping route. Therefore the certainty of sovereignty and sovereign rights over maritime area around the features is undoubtedly important. Hence, the delimitation of maritime boundaries among three relevant parties: Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia is important. This will, hopefully, generate definitive line dividing maritime areas under each country’s jurisdiction.

It is worth recalling that Indonesia and Malaysia agreed seabed boundaries in the area in 1969 generating a line starting from point 11 (around 12 km to the east of PB) heading northeast in the South China Sea. In 1973, Indonesia also concluded a maritime boundary with Singapore consisting six points where the eastern tip of the line is point 6. Simply speaking, there are some pending boundary segments that these three neighboring states need to settle.

In a technical perspective, line delimiting maritime space in the area can be constructed by equidistance principle (or median line) considering that it also deals with territorial sea (up to 12 nautical miles from baseline/coastline of each state) as it is indicated in article 15 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 1982. Meanwhile, for maritime area beyond 12 nautical miles, (exclusive economic zone, and continental shelf) “equitable solution” is suggested by article 74 and 83 of UNCLOS and equidistance is not always necessarily equitable. For this purpose, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore will need to sit together or bilaterally for negotiation.

Some relevant considerations may include a) the fact that these three features are reasonably small and lay in an ‘inconvenient’ position that may complicate the delimitation, b) the possibility for these three features to generate their own maritime claims (territorial sea, exclusive economic zone, and continental shelf), and c) existing maritime boundaries among the three neighboring states. No matter how difficult it is for the three states to delimit their maritime boundaries, the immediate process will, undoubtedly, be better for all. Certainty in maritime division will provide each state with clarity in utilizing and managing maritime resources. The good will and good faith of the neighboring states will be the key for future delimitation.


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