On 12 July 2016, the Tribunal in the South China Sea arbitration issued its final award. China rejected the ruling as “null and void”. The Philippines dismissed it as “a piece of paper” after initially hailing the ruling a “milestone decision”. The reactions of the parties concerned raise important questions about the bindingness, finality, and state compliance with UNCLOS dispute settlement decisions. This paper addresses these questions by dissecting China’s arguments that the award “has no binding force” and by examining the options available for promoting compliance with the award. The paper also considers the broader question of how states generally comply with UNCLOS dispute settlement decisions and evaluates the significance of UNCLOS dispute settlement mechanisms, including the South China Sea arbitration, in the absence of external enforcement.
Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for International Law, National University of Singapore.
Lecturer of Public International Law, Department of Law, Economics and Governance, Utrecht University, the Netherlands.
1. Department of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of the Philippines, “Statement of the Secretary of Foreign Affairs” (12 July 2016), online: <https://www.dfa.gov.ph/documents-on-the-west-philippine-sea>; Benjamin Kang LIM, “Philippines’ Duterte Says S.China Sea Arbitration Case to Take ‘Back Seat’”, Reuters (19 October 2016), online: Reuters <http://in.reuters.com/article/china-philippines/philippines-duterte-says-s-china-sea-arbitration-case-to-take-back-seat-idINKCN12J1QK>; “Philippines’ Duterte Praises China on Beijing Visit”, Channel NewsAsia (19 October 2016), online: Channel NewsAsia <http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asiapacific/philippines-duterte-praises-china-on-beijing-visit/3219034.html>.
2. “Statement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China on the Award of 12 July 2016 of the Arbitral Tribunal in the South China Sea Arbitration Established at the Request of the Republic of the Philippines”, Xinhua (12 July 2016), online: Xinhua <http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2016-07/12/c_135507744.htm>.
3. See TALMON Stefan, “The South China Sea Arbitration and the Finality of ‘Final’ Awards” (2017) 1 Journal of International Dispute Settlement 1 ; Graham ALLISON, “Heresy to Say Great Powers Don’t Bow to Tribunals on Law of the Sea?”, The Straits Times (16 July 2016), online: The Straits Times <http://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/heresy-to-say-great-powers-dont-bow-to-international-courts>; Graham ALLISON, “Of Course China, Like All Great Powers, Will Ignore an International Legal Verdict”, The Diplomat (11 July 2016), online: The Diplomat <http://thediplomat.com/2016/07/of-course-china-like-all-great-powers-will-ignore-an-international-legal-verdict/>; Julian KU, “China’s Ridiculously Weak Legal Argument Against Complying with the South China Sea Arbitration Award”, Lawfare (6 June 2016), online: Lawfare <https://www.lawfareblog.com/chinas-ridiculously-weak-legal-argument-against-complying-south-china-sea-arbitration-award>; Julian KU, “Why ‘Lawfare’ Won’t Deter China in the South China Sea”, Opinio Juris (13 July 2014), online: Opinio Juris <http://opiniojuris.org/2014/07/13/lawfare-wont-deter-china-south-china-sea/>; Paterno ESMAQUEL II, “Q and A: Case vs China ‘Not Enough,’ Expert Says”, Rappler (19 August 2014), online: Rappler <http://www.rappler.com/nation/66676-philippines-china-case-sovereignty-patrols>.
4. NORDQUIST Myron H., ROSENNE Shabtai, and SOHN Louis B., eds., United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982: A Commentary , Vol. V (Dordrect/Boston/London: Martinus Nijhoff, 1985) at 84.
5. For decisions of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea [ITLOS], art. 33 Annex VI of UNCLOS provides that “[t]he decision of the Tribunal is final and shall be complied with by all the parties to the dispute” and “[t]he decision shall have no binding force except between the parties in respect of that particular dispute”.
6. Nordquist et al., supra note 4 at 83.
7. Free Zones of Upper Savoy and the District of Gex (France v. Switzerland)  P.C.I.J. Series A/B, No. 46, 97 at 161.
8. Case of the Monetary Gold Removed from Rome in 1943 (Italy v. France, United Kingdom and United States)  I.C.J. Rep. 19 at 33.
9. La Grand Case (Germany v. United States)  I.C.J. Rep. 466 at 502–3. Although the Court was examining art. 59 of the ICJ Statute with regard to the binding nature of its provisional measures, the Court’s conclusion can arguably be extended to other types of decisions of the Court, including its judgments.
10. KOROMA Abdul G., “The Binding Nature of the Decisions of the International Court of Justice” in Marcelo KOHEN and Laurence BOISSON DE CHAZOURNES, eds., International Law and the Quest for its Implementation / Le droit international et la quête de sa mise en oeuvre: Liber Amicorum Vera Gowlland-Debbas (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2010) at 436–9.
11. Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro)  I.C.J. Rep. 43 at 115, 117. Art. 61 of the ICJ Statute states that “[a]n application for revision of a judgment may be made only when it is based upon the discovery of some fact of such a nature as to be a decisive factor, which fact was, when the judgment was given, unknown to the Court and also to the party claiming revision, always provided that such ignorance was not due to negligence”. In relation to arbitral awards, arts. 35 to 37 of the Model Rules on Arbitral Procedure adopted by the International Law Commission in 1958 provide for the grounds for the parties to challenge the validity of an arbitral award. See further MERRILLS J.G., International Dispute Settlement , 5th edn. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011) 103–106 .
12. Application of the Genocide Convention, supra note 11 at 116.
13. Koroma, supra note 10 at 435.
14. ADEDE A.O., The System for Settlement of Disputes Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea: A Drafting History and a Commentary (Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff, 1987) at 89.
15. The 1958 Geneva Conventions for law of the sea merely relegate the settlement of disputes to an optional protocol. See Optional Protocol of Signature Concerning the Compulsory Settlement of Disputes Arising from the Law of the Sea Conventions, 29 April 1958, 450 U.N.T.S. 169 (entered into force 30 September 1962).
16. See Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, “Position Paper of the Government of the People’s Republic of China on the Matter of Jurisdiction in the South China Sea Arbitration Initiated by the Republic of the Philippines” (7 December 2014), online: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC <http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1217147.shtml>; Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, “Veil of the Arbitral Tribunal Must Be Tore Down—Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin Answers Journalists’ Questions on the So-called Binding Force of the Award Rendered by the Arbitral Tribunal of the South China Sea Arbitration Case” (13 July 2016), online: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC <http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjbxw/t1381879.shtml>.
17. The Arbitral Tribunal made several attempts to engage with China and gave China numerous opportunities to present its views on the procedural and jurisdictional aspects of the arbitration and the merits of the Philippines’ submissions.
18. Examples of partial and full non-participation before the ICJ include: Corfu Channel (United Kingdom v. Albania), Assessment of the Amount of Compensation Due from the People’s Republic of Albania to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland,  I.C.J Rep. 244 at 248; Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. (United Kingdom v. Iran)  I.C.J. Rep 9; Nottebohm (Liechtenstein v. Guatemala)  I.C.J. Rep 4; Fisheries Jurisdiction (United Kingdom v. Iceland), Jurisdiction,  I.C.J Rep. 3 at 12; Fisheries Jurisdiction (Germany v. Iceland), Jurisdiction,  I.C.J Rep. 3 at 12; Nuclear Test Cases (Australia v. France)  I.C.J. Rep. 457 at 15; Nuclear Test Cases (New Zealand v. France)  I.C.J. Rep 457 at 15; Aegean Sea Continental Shelf (Greece v. Turkey)  I.C.J. Rep. 3 at 15; US Diplomatic and Consular Staff in Tehran (United States v. Iran)  I.C.J. Rep. 3 at 33; Military and Paramilitary Activities in and Against Nicaragua (Nicaragua v. United States), Merits,  I.C.J. Rep. 14 at 27; Maritime Delimitation and Territorial Questions Case (Qatar v. Bahrain), Jurisdiction and Admissibility,  I.C.J. Rep. 6 at 14.
19. Jerome A. COHEN, “Like It or Not, UNCLOS Arbitration is Legally Binding for China” East Asia Forum (11 July 2016), online: East Asia Forum <http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2016/07/11/like-it-or-not-unclos-arbitration-is-legally-binding-for-china/>.
20. Nicaragua v. United States, supra note 18 at 28.
21. “Arctic Sunrise” (Kingdom of the Netherlands v. Russian Federation), Provisional Measures, Order of 22 November 2013,  I.T.L.O.S. Rep. 230, Joint Separate Opinion of Judge Wolfrum and Judge Kelly, at 6.
22. The Chinese Journal of International Law dedicated the whole of Volume 15, Issue 2, to the South China Sea arbitration. See e.g. Yee Sienho, “The South China Sea Arbitration Decisions on Jurisdiction and Rule of Law Concerns” (2016) 15 Chinese Journal of International Law 219 ; Whomersley Chris, “The South China Sea: The Award of the Tribunal in the Case Brought by Philippines against China—A Critique” (2016) 15 Chinese Journal of International Law 239 ; Pemmaraju Sreenivasa Rao, “The South China Sea Arbitration (The Philippines v. China): Assessment of the Award on Jurisdiction and Admissibility” (2016) 15 Chinese Journal of International Law 265 ; Talmon Stefan, “The South China Sea Arbitration: Observations on the Award on Jurisdiction and Admissibility” (2016) 15 Chinese Journal of International Law 309 .
23. Makane Moïse MBENGUE, “The South China Sea Arbitration: Innovations in Marine Environmental Fact-Finding and Due Diligence Obligations” AJIL Unbound (12 December 2016), online: AJIL Unbound <https://www.asil.org/blogs/symposium-south-china-sea-arbitration-south-china-sea-arbitration-innovations-marine#_ftnref19>.
24. “Veil of the Arbitral Tribunal Must Be Tore Down”, supra note 16. See also YEE Sienho, “The South China Sea Arbitration Decisions on Jurisdiction and Rule of Law Concerns” (2016) 15 Chinese Journal of International Law 219 at 224.
25. Nordquist et al., supra note 4 at 427.
26. The Arbitral Tribunal Rules of Procedure, art. 7(1).
27. “Veil of the Arbitral Tribunal Must Be Tore Down”, supra note 16.
28. Continental Shelf (Tunisia/Libya)  I.C.J. Rep. 18 at 70; Continental Shelf (Libya/Malta),  I.C.J. Rep. 13 at 45.
29. See e.g. Maritime Delimitation in the Area Between Greenland and Jan Mayen (Denmark v. Norway)  I.C.J. Rep. 38 at 64; Land and Maritime Boundary Between Cameroon and Nigeria (Cameroon v. Nigeria: Equatorial Guinea Intervening)  I.C.J. Rep. 303 at 288; Delimitation of the Exclusive Economic Zone and the Continental Shelf (Barbados v. Trinidad and Tobago), Decision of 11 April 2006, XXVII RIAA 147–251 at 242–4; Maritime Delimitation in the Black Sea (Romania v. Ukraine),  I.C.J. Rep. 61 at 118; Delimitation of the Maritime Boundary in the Bay of Bengal (Bangladesh/Myanmar)  I.T.L.O.S. Rep. 4 at 240.
30. For a discussion on the effectiveness of international adjudication in encouraging compliance with international law, see ALTER Karen, “Do International Courts Enhance Compliance with International Law?” (2003) 25 Review of Asian and Pacific Studies 51–78 ; POSNER Eric and YOO John, “Judicial Independence in International Tribunals” (2005) 93 California Law Review 1–74 ; HELFER Laurence and SLAUGHTER Anne-Marie, “Why States Create International Tribunals: A Response to Professors Posner and Yoo” (2005) 93 California Law Review 899–956 ; POSNER Eric A. and YOO John C., “Reply to Helfer and Slaughter” (2005) 93 California Law Review 957–973 .
31. M/V “SAIGA” (No. 2) (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines v. Guinea), Judgment,  I.T.L.O.S. Rep. 10 at 183.
32. ITLOS, Yearbook 2000 , Vol. 4 (The Hague/London/New York: Kluwer International, 2002) at 149.
33. ITLOS, Yearbook 2001 , Vol. 5 (The Hague/London/New York: Kluwer International, 2003) at 156.
34. “Camouco” (Panama v. France), Prompt Release, Judgment,  I.T.L.O.S. Rep. 10 at 78; “Monte Confurco” (Seychelles v. France), Prompt Release, Judgment,  I.T.L.O.S. Rep. 86 at 96.
35. ITLOS, Yearbook 2000 , Vol. 4 (The Hague/London/New York: Kluwer International, 2002) 150 ; ITLOS, Yearbook 2001 , Vol. 5 (The Hague/London/New York: Kluwer International, 2003) 156 .
36. “Hoshinmaru” (Japan v. Russian Federation), Prompt Release, Judgment, [2005–2007] I.T.L.O.S. Rep. 18 at 102.
37. TUERK Helmut, Reflections on the Contemporary Law of the Sea , Vol. 6 (Leiden/Boston: Martinus Nijhoff, 2012) at 145.
38. MOX Plant (Ireland v. United Kingdom), Provisional Measures,  I.T.L.O.S. Rep. 95 at 89.
39. ITLOS, Yearbook 2002 , Vol. 6 (The Hague/London/New York: Kluwer International, 2002) at 138.
40. “MOX Plant Arbitral Tribunal Issues Order No. 6 Terminating Proceedings”, Press Release (6 June 2008), online: Permanent Court of Arbitration <https://www.pcacases.com/web/sendAttach/876>.
41. Land Reclamation by Singapore in and Around the Straits of Johor (Malaysia v. Singapore), Provisional Measures,  I.T.L.O.S. Rep. 10 at 106.
42. KOH Tommy and LIN Jolene, “The Land Reclamation Case: Thoughts and Reflections” (2006) 10 Singapore Yearbook of International Law 1 at 5.
43. Case Concerning Land Reclamation by Singapore in and Around the Straits of Johor (Malaysia v. Singapore), Decision of 1 September 2005,  XXVII Reports of International Arbitral Awards 133.
44. “Address to the Nation by His Excellency Bharrat Jagdeo, President of the Republic of Guyana, on the Award of the Guyana-Suriname Arbitral Tribunal, 20 September 2007” Guyana News and Information (22 September 2007), online: <http://www.guyana.org/guysur/jagdeo_tribunal_award.html>.
45. Michael HOGAN and Gareth JONES, “Bangladesh Hails UN Ruling in Myanmar Border Dispute” Reuters (14 March 2012), online: Reuters <http://uk.reuters.com/article/bangladesh-myanmar-maritime-idUKL5E8EE40F20120314>. Following the judgment, Myanmar amended its Submission to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf for the extension of its continental shelf in the Bay of Bengal. “The Republic of the Union of Myanmar Continental Shelf Submission—Executive Summary Amended July 2015” (30 July 2015), at 1, online: United Nations <http://www.un.org/depts/los/clcs_new/submissions_files/mmr08/Myanmar_Amended_Ex_Summary.pdf>.
46. Ruma PAUL, “U.N. Tribunal Rules for Bangladesh in Sea Border Dispute with India” Reuters (8 July 104), online: Reuters <http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/07/08/uk-bangladesh-india-seaborder-idUKKBN0FD15N20140708>; Rupak BHATTACHARJEE, “Delimitation of Indo-Bangladesh Maritime Boundary” Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (19 August 2014), online: IDSA <http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/DelimitationofIndo-Bangladesh_rbhattacharjee_190814>.
47. “Timor Sea Conciliation” Joint Media Release by the Hon. Julie Bishop, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Senator the Hon. George Brandis QC, Attorney-General (26 September 2016), online: Minister for Foreign Affairs <http://foreignminister.gov.au/releases/Pages/2016/jb_mr_160926.aspx>. The parties reached an agreement on the text of a settlement treaty in October 2017. See Conciliation between the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste and the Commonwealth of Australia, Press Release (15 October 2017), online: <https://www.pcacases.com/web/sendAttach/2240>.
48. “Conciliation Proceedings Between the Government of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste and the Government of the Commonwealth of Australia Pursuant to Article 298 and Annex V of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea”, Trilateral Joint Statement (9 January 2017), online: <https://pca-cpa.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/175/2017/01/20170109-Trilateral-Joint-Statement.pdf>.
49. Pavel BANDAKOV, “Russia Parliament Approves Amnesty for Prisoners” BBC (18 December 2013), online: BBC <http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-25433426>; John VIDAL, “Arctic 30: Russia Releases Greenpeace Ship” The Guardian (6 June 2014), online: The Guardian <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jun/06/arctic-30-sunrise-russia-to-release-greenpeace-ship>.
50. The Arctic Sunrise Arbitration (Netherlands v. Russia), Award on Merits, [14 August 2015] at 401, online: Permanent Court of Arbitration <http://www.pcacases.com/web/sendAttach/1438>. The Tribunal reserved questions of the quantum of compensation and interest to a later phase of the proceedings.
51. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, “Comment by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova on the International Arbitration Court Ruling in the Arctic Sunrise Case” (25 August 2015), online: <http://www.mid.ru/en/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/1707214>.
52. Julian KU and Chris MIRASOLA, “Tracking China’s Compliance with the South China Sea Arbitral Award” Lawfare (3 October 2016), online: Lawfare <https://www.lawfareblog.com/tracking-chinas-compliance-south-china-sea-arbitral-award>.
53. Nordquist et al., supra note 4 at 436.
54. Request for Interpretation of the Judgment of 15 June 1962 in the Case Concerning the Temple of Preah Vihear (Cambodia v. Thailand)  I.C.J. Rep. 281 at 21 (emphasis added).
55. Ibid., at 38.
56. In 2008, Mexico also requested the ICJ to interpret its judgment in the Avena case. The request, in effect, concerned the implementation of the judgment. See Request for Interpretation of the Judgment of 31 March 2004 in the Case concerning Avena and Other Mexican Nationals (Mexico v. United States of America)  I.C.J Rep. 3 at 10.
57. Nordquist et al., supra note 4 at 437.
58. Judgment of the International Court of Justice of 27 June 1986 Concerning Military and Paramilitary Activities in and Against Nicaragua: Need for Immediate Compliance, GA Res A/RES/41/31 (1986). The dispute between the two states was eventually resolved when Nicaragua withdrew its claim for compensation, “[t]aking into consideration that the Government of Nicaragua and the Government of the United States of America have reached agreements aimed at enhancing Nicaragua’s economic, commercial and technical development to the maximum extent possible”. See Letter of the Agent of Nicaragua to the Registrar (12 September 1991), online: <http://www.icj-cij.org/files/case-related/70/9635.pdf>.
59. Cameroon-Nigeria Mixed Commission, online: United Nations Office for West Africa <https://unowa.unmissions.org/cameroon-nigeria-mixed-commission-0>.
60. Arbitral proceedings were unilaterally initiated by Bangladesh on 8 October 2009. On 4 November 2009, Myanmar made a declaration in accordance with art. 287 selecting the ITLOS as the forum for the dispute. Bangladesh did the same thing on 12 December 2009. On 13 December 2009, Bangladesh invited the ITLOS to settle the dispute, given that the two parties selected the same procedure for the dispute. See ITLOS Press Release No. 140: Proceedings Instituted in the Dispute Concerning Maritime Boundary of Bangladesh and Myanmar in the Bay of Bengal (16 December 2009), online: International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea <https://www.itlos.org/fileadmin/itlos/documents/press_releases_english/PR.140-E.pdf>.
* Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for International Law, National University of Singapore.
** Lecturer of Public International Law, Department of Law, Economics and Governance, Utrecht University, the Netherlands.
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