The International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague in the Netherlands has awarded sovereignty over Pedra Branca island to Singapore, while the sovereignty of Middle Rocks has been awarded to Malaysia.
The world court delivered the judgement on Friday, after several rounds of written and oral pleadings by the two disputing countries. The ICJ last heard arguments from both sides in November 2007.
For Pedra Branca, ICJ’s 16-member bench voted 12-4 in favour of Singapore. Ownership of Middle Rocks, a maritime feature 0.6 nautical miles from Pedra Branca, was voted 15-1 to Malaysia.
As for the island’s other maritime feature, South Ledge, Awn Shawkat Al-Khasawneh, the Acting President of International Court of Justice, said: “The Court has not been mandated by the parties to draw the line of delimitation with respect to the territorial waters of Malaysia and Singapore in the area in question. In these circumstances, the court concludes that for the reasons explained above, sovereignty over South Ledge, as a low tide elevation, belongs to the State in the territorial waters of which it is located.”
The verdict brings to a close a 28-year row between the two neighbours. The dispute arose in 1980 when Singapore protested against a new Malaysian map of its maritime boundaries, which claimed the islet for itself.
Years of bilateral talks failed to resolve the matter and the parties agreed to seek the intervention of the UN court.
Pedra Branca, which Malaysia calls Pulau Batu Puteh, is located some 24 nautical miles to the east of Singapore and it commands the entire eastern approach to the Singapore Strait, through which almost 900 ships pass daily.
Pedra Branca also houses the Horsburgh Lighthouse, the oldest feature on the island which was built by the British between 1847 and 1851.
Leaders from both Singapore and Malaysia had said they would accept the ICJ’s decision and stressed that whichever way it went, it would not affect bilateral ties.
A joint technical committee has been set up to implement the terms of the judgement.
Diplomat and Dean of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Barry Desker, said the judgement indicates that Southeast Asia is moving to accept the broader norms of international law.
He added that it augurs well for the dispute settlement mechanism of the ASEAN Charter and will set precedence for the way Singapore and Malaysia deal with their other outstanding bilateral issues.
Mr Desker said: “In the past, the tendency in ASEAN was to try and resolve issues purely by mediation or negotiations between two parties. The result was that issues or disputes between parties in the region tended to go on and on without completion, without successful negotiation.
“I think we are now moving in the direction of accepting a turn to international law – a willingness to accept international arbitration and this bodes well for issues in which there are bilateral differences.”
Mr Desker also described the verdict as “win-win” for both sides because no party can claim it has won everything.
Moving forward, he said the technical committees of both countries will need to put into action the decision of the International Court of Justice. These include working out the necessary protocols to ensure the navigation safety of fishing vessels and pleasure crafts around Pedra Branca.
Source : Channel NewsAsia – 23 May 2008