International Court of Justice – Case concerning sovereignty over Pedra Branca, Middle Rocks and South Ledge

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International Court of Justice – Case concerning sovereignty over Pedra Branca, Middle Rocks and South Ledge

What is Pedra Branca?

Pedra Branca is an island located at the eastern entrance of the Straits of Singapore, about 24 nautical miles east of Singapore. The British colonial government took possession of the island over 160 years ago to build Horsburgh Lighthouse and other structures on it. Since then, Singapore has exercised continuous sovereignty over the entire island and its adjacent waters.

The oldest feature on the island is the Horsburgh Lighthouse, which was built by the British between 1847 and 1851. Today, Pedra Branca also hosts a military rebroadcast station, a helipad, a desalination plant and a communications tower. Pedra Branca is also home to the keepers of Horsburgh Lighthouse.

To the south of Pedra Branca are two maritime features: Middle Rocks and South Ledge. Middle Rocks consists of two clusters of rocks situated 0.6 nautical miles south of Pedra Branca. South Ledge is a low-tide elevation (a feature that is submerged at high tide) further south, 2.1 nautical miles off Pedra Branca. 

Beginnings of the Dispute

In 1979, Malaysia published a map which claimed the island as hers. In response, Singapore lodged a formal protest with Malaysia in early 1980, to assert that Pedra Branca belonged to Singapore. 

As the two sides were unable to resolve the matter through bilateral negotiations, both countries agreed to resolve their differences peacefully through a third party by bringing the territorial dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for decision. Singapore first proposed submitting the dispute to the ICJ in 1989.  Malaysia accepted this proposal in 1994.

International Court of Justice – Case concerning sovereignty over Pedra Branca, Middle Rocks and South Ledge

The Special Agreement (a formal agreement that was needed for the submission of the dispute to the ICJ) was signed on 6th February 2003 by the Foreign Ministers of both countries, and formally notified to the ICJ on 24 July 2003. The ICJ was requested to determine whether sovereignty over (a) Pedra Branca; (b) Middle Rocks; and (c) South Ledge belonged to Malaysia or Singapore.

Written and Oral Proceedings

In accordance with the terms of the Special Agreement, the ICJ scheduled three rounds of written pleadings, which were to be exchanged simultaneously. These were submitted on 25 March 2004, 25 January 2005 and 25 November 2005.  

Both Singapore and Malaysia made oral arguments before the ICJ from 6-23 November 2007. These hearings were open to the public and were held at the ICJ, at the Peace Palace in The Hague.

The Parties' Arguments

Singapore contended that Pedra Branca was terra nullius, prior to the British Crown’s possession of the island in the mid-1800s. Singapore’s title to Pedra Branca was based upon the British authorities in Singapore having taken lawful possession of the island for the construction of Horsburgh Lighthouse, and Singapore - the lawful successor to the British Crown - having continuously and openly exercised sovereignty over the entire island and its surrounding waters thereafter. Furthermore, in 1953, Johor stated in official correspondence with Singapore that it did not claim ownership over the island. Malaysia also published a series of official maps from 1962 to 1975 depicting Pedra Branca as belonging to Singapore. 

Singapore further argued that sovereignty of Middle Rocks and South Ledge went together with the sovereignty over Pedra Branca.

Malaysia argued that it had title to all three features, based on original title to Pedra Branca having resided with its predecessor, the Sultanate of Johor.

Transcripts of the oral arguments are available here, and a summary of the case is available here.

International Court of Justice – Case concerning sovereignty over Pedra Branca, Middle Rocks and South Ledge

Outcome of the Case

On 23 May 2008, the ICJ issued its judgment, in which it decided that sovereignty over Pedra Branca belongs to Singapore, sovereignty over Middle Rocks belongs to Malaysia, and sovereignty over South Ledge belongs to the State in the territorial waters of which it is located. 

In the case of Pedra Branca, the ICJ held that while the Sultanate of Johor had original title to Pedra Branca, sovereignty over the island had passed to Singapore by 1980 (when the dispute crystallised). This was demonstrated by the concrete acts of sovereignty conducted over the island by Singapore and its predecessors, taken together with the failure of Malaysia and its predecessors to respond to these acts.

Post-Judgment

After the ICJ’s judgment was released, both Singapore and Malaysia agreed to abide by the ICJ’s ruling. A ‘Malaysia-Singapore Joint Technical Committee on the Implementation of the ICJ Judgment on Pedra Branca, Middle Rocks and South Ledge’ (MSJTC) was formed by both countries to implement the ICJ’s judgment.  Both countries have agreed that the next step would be for the MSJTC to move into the delimitation of maritime boundaries.

The MSJTC has met seven times since 2008. Joint Press Statements of the MSJTC can be found under the ‘Further References’ section.

In February 2017, Malaysia filed an application for revision of the ICJ’s 2008 judgment. Under Article 61 of the Statute of the ICJ, an 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, and which was, when the judgment was given, unknown to the Court and the party claiming revision, provided such ignorance was not due to negligence.  Such an application must be made within ten years of the date of the judgment, and at latest within six months of the discovery of the new fact. Singapore filed its Written Observations (WOs) on the admissibility of Malaysia’s revision application with the ICJ on 24 May 2017.

In June 2017, Malaysia filed an application for interpretation of the ICJ’s 2008 Judgment. Pursuant to Article 60 of the Statute of the ICJ, the Court may consider such an application if there is a dispute as to the meaning or scope of the Judgment. Malaysia’s application for interpretation is additional to, and separate from, its 2 February 2017 application for revision of the ICJ’s Judgment. Unlike a revision application which seeks to revise or alter the Judgment based on purported newly-discovered facts, an interpretation application seeks to clarify a judgment. Singapore filed its WOs on the admissibility of Malaysia’s interpretation application with the ICJ on 30 October 2017.

The next step for both the revision and interpretation cases is for the Parties to present their oral arguments after the ICJ has fixed the schedule for the oral proceedings.

Significance of the Case

The ICJ’s 2008 judgment marks an important milestone in Singapore-Malaysia bilateral relations and the three-decade long territorial dispute. The case also demonstrates two key tenets of Singapore’s foreign policy: the peaceful settlement of disputes and adherence to the international rule of law.

International Court of Justice – Case concerning sovereignty over Pedra Branca, Middle Rocks and South Ledge

MFA Press Statements

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MSJTC Joint Press Statements

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