Tribunal’s ruling concerning East Sea disputes very important

A Nhan Dan correspondent interviewed Editor-in-chief Le Thanh Huong of the State and Law Journal under the Institute of State and Law on the final verdict of the tribunal under Annex VII to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), responsible for handling the arbitration instituted by the Philippines against China concerning disputes in the East Sea.

Q: As an international law researcher, what do you think of the first verdict by the international tribunal concerning disputes over the East Sea?

A: First of all, I warmly welcome the tribunal’s decision concerning the arbitration, in which the court resolved all 15 submissions from the Philippines. After more than three years of working with prudence, objectivity and impartiality, the tribunal issued a final unanimous decision.

The first significance of the ruling is related to the jurisdiction of the tribunal. This is not only the general jurisdiction of the tribunal constituted under Annex VII to the 1982 UNCLOS, but also clearly defines the competence for the content according to 15 groups of issues filed by the Philistines.

Second, this is the first ruling of an international authorised institution concerning disputes in the East Sea related to interpretation and application of UNCLOS of which both the Philippines and China are members.

In addition, many countries in the East Sea who are members of the Convention also face disputes with China. The judgment is very important; it represents a breakthrough in the development of international maritime law, creating understanding of unspecified terms under the Convention.

The award also concluded on the value of the so-called “nine-dash line” launched from a big country like China that affect the interests of concerned countries in the region - a unilateral absurd statement covering the whole East Sea. The tribunal concluded that there is no legal basis for China to claim its “historic rights” to resources in waters within the “nine-dash line”.

And moreover, the judgment established the legal status of the geological structures in the Spratly Islands region, so identifying waters associated with these structures is clear. The decision also gave an assessment of the activities blatantly violating the UNCLOS by China.

Q: Did the decision by the tribunal help clarify what points are being debated under the Convention?

A: Firstly, I appreciate the tribunal in determining jurisdiction to groups of issues submitted by the Philippines in the judgment of the court's jurisdiction issued on October 2015, as well as being continuously affirmed in this award on the competence of the remaining contents of the groups of issues represented in the 15 submissions by the Philippines. That is very important. The determination of jurisdiction has concretised interpretation and application of certain provisions of UNCLOS on determining the competence of the institution responsible for resolving disputes under required mechanism in UNCLOS.

Secondly, the ruling has clarified some controversial aspects of UNCLOS and some unspecific points have been clarified. For example, the criteria for determining what an island, rock, and shoal is under the relevant provisions of UNCLOS, in particular Article 121, have been specified.

The entire ruling is important, marking a new development in international law, and international marine law in particular.

The five-member tribunal - consisting of four judges from the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea and a highly respected professor - worked for more than three years on assessing and evaluating the evidence and arguments from concerned parties. They issued the 500-page ruling, creating a breakthrough in finalising the international law of the sea. The judgment has resolved many issues related to the interpretation and application of the Convention since UNCLOS took effect.

Q: What type of impact do you think the ruling will have on disputes in the East Sea?

A: The tribunal’s decision is a very important legal basis for laws applicable in other similar cases. The unity in the interpretation and application of UNCLOS will help prevent disputes from occurring; entities will have to adjust their behaviours to be consistent with their commitments under UNCLOS.  I think the verdict will contribute positively to the resolution of disputes in the East Sea, opening up opportunities for countries in the area to co-operate in handling the remaining problems.

The court itself stated that the case is not the problem of one country wanting to harm another, but a difference in the understanding of the content of the Convention. At the end of the tribunal’s press release, the document stated that the ruling has a binding force with both the Philippines and China; related countries adhere to the decision in the spirit of goodwill. In international issues, there are many international mechanisms aimed at developing co-operation in peace and security. A country will have to consider the damages and benefits of acting outside of this.

Although not a direct party in the lawsuit, as a country in the East Sea and directly involved in the East Sea disputes and the member States of UNCLOS, Vietnam has closely followed the case. Vietnam submitted its Declaration related to the arbitration to the court on December 5, 2014 and attended the oral arguments. Closely following the lawsuit helps Vietnam protect its legal rights and interests in the East Sea, and the December 5 Declaration submitted to the tribunal affirmed the legal rights and interests of Vietnam in the East Sea.