Malaysia v. Indonesia: Can the Law of the Sea Help?

Malaysia v. Indonesia: Can the Law of the Sea Help?

Although Malaysia and Indonesia have both been devastated recently by the December tsunami, they have apparently recovered enough to start squabbling over undersea development rights on two previously disputed islands, the Sipadan and Ligitan islands. The International Court of Justice awarded sovereignty over the two islands to Malaysia in a 2002 judgment, but Indonesia continues to contest the extent of Malaysia’s undersea development rights and has even sent warships to the disputed area to highlight its claim.

This issue apparently turns on whether Malaysia has the right to undersea development more than 19 kilometers and it also has to do with Indonesia’s prior claims and concessions in this area.

It doesn’t sound like things will get ugly, but this little episode does highlight how an international tribunal and a set of international rules like the Law of the Sea can help resolve this dispute. Whether such rules really will be invoked, and whether the ICJ or some other arbitral tribunal is called in to resolve this dispute is another question given the billions of dollars at stake here, but it does seem like a classic example of how international adjudication and international law can play a useful role in resolving disputes.

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