Against the backdrop of China recently renaming several disputed insular features in the South China Sea, which led to protests from Vietnam, the suggestion has been raised that Vietnam might to turn to “the world arbitration court” to have the matter adjudicated. Although a court by that name does not exist, it may be inferred that reference is made here to an international court or tribunal. A myth rears its head in the same news article, one that has been perpetuated particularly after the Arbitral Tribunal established pursuant to Annex VII of the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention (LOSC) rendered its award in the South China Sea Arbitration (The Republic of the Philippines v. The People’s Republic of China) in 2013. The myth being that “Arbitral rulings aren’t binding”. To reinforce this seriously flawed argument, the news article does indeed invoke the South China Arbitration.
After the Arbitral Tribunal delivered its decision on the merits in South China Sea Arbitration, some have used it to argue that this arbitral decision, and arbitral decisions in general, are not binding. Having declared under Article 298(1)(a) of the LOSC its non-acceptance of arbitration with respect to maritime boundary disputes or those involving historic titles, China argued that the Arbitral Tribunal could not consider the case on the merits. It also abstained from participating in the proceedings. After the Tribunal assumed that it had jurisdiction over the dispute, and went on to hand down its final decision on the merits, China reinforced its earlier expressed intentions that it would not follow the final outcome of the award.
However, from the fact that China did not recognise the validity of the Tribunal’s decision, the inference cannot be drawn that it is therefore not legally binding. To the contrary, Article 296(1) of the LOSC leaves no doubt in this regard: any decision rendered by a court or tribunal assuming jurisdiction over the dispute “shall be final and shall be complied with by all the parties to the dispute”. This is reinforced in Article 11 of Annex VII of the LOSC: an “award shall be final and without appeal, unless the parties to the dispute have agreed in advance to an appellate procedure. It shall be complied with by the parties to the dispute”. In this light, rather than perpetuating this myth that decisions of international tribunals are not binding, the opposite, that is abandoning this rhetoric, is far more appropriate.