Pedra Branca: ICJ to hear Malaysia's challenge in June

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) will hold public hearings in June for two cases brought by Malaysia on the sovereignty of the island of Pedra Branca.

In a statement yesterday, the United Nations top court said four days had been scheduled for the hearing of each case: June 11-13 and 18 for the first, and June 18-19 and 21-22 for the second.

In the first case, Malaysia wants the ICJ judgment made on May 23, 2008 to be overturned.

The court had ruled that Pedra Branca belonged to Singapore, a decision that resolved a territorial dispute which began in 1979.

Malaysia has also filed a second request, seeking an interpretation of the 2008 judgment. Both hearings will take place at the Peace Palace in The Hague, in the Netherlands.

Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said yesterday that Malaysia and Singapore have exchanged written submissions on both cases.

The small island of Pedra Branca - also known as Pulau Batu Puteh - houses the Horsburgh Lighthouse, and is located about 40km east of Singapore's main island.

Besides Pedra Branca, the ICJ had also ruled at the same time on the sovereignty over two other maritime features: the Middle Rocks and South Ledge, near Pedra Branca. It said Middle Rocks belongs to Malaysia, but it did not make a definitive ruling on South Ledge, saying it belongs to whoever owns the territorial waters it sits in.

Malaysia's latest application to revise the 2008 judgment was filed on Feb 2 last year. It cited three new documents discovered in the British Archives to argue its point that Singapore's officials at the highest levels did not consider that Singapore had acquired sovereignty over Pedra Branca from Johor in the years following 1953.

In its 2008 judgment, the ICJ had considered correspondence from 1953 between Singapore's colonial officials and Johor as being of central importance.

Johor's top official had written in a 1953 letter that "the Johor government does not claim ownership of Pedra Branca". The court found this showed that while Johor had the original title, "as of 1953, Johor understood that it did not have sovereignty over Pedra Branca".

Malaysia based its application on Article 61 of the ICJ's Statute, which states that an application to revise a judgment may be made when there is discovery of a fact which would be a "decisive factor" and was not known at the time of judgment.

Singapore filed its rebuttal on May 24 last year, contending that the documents Malaysia relied on do not satisfy the criteria under which it applied for a revision.

On June 30, Malaysia submitted another request asking the ICJ to declare the waters around Pedra Branca to be Malaysian waters - and, by extension, that South Ledge belongs to Malaysia.

On Oct 30 last year, Singapore filed its rebuttal to Malaysia's request for interpretation.

Singapore's legal team for the cases is helmed by four people.

Three were in the original 2007 team that argued the country's case: former deputy prime minister and law minister S. Jayakumar, Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh and former chief justice Chan Sek Keong. The fourth is Attorney-General Lucien Wong.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 07, 2018, with the headline Pedra Branca: ICJ to hear Malaysia's challenge in June. Subscribe