Abandoning the myth that decisions rendered by international arbitral tribunals are not binding

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.

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Dr Youri van Logchem

Dr. Youri van Logchem is a senior lecturer at the Institute of International Shipping and Trade Law, at Swansea University, teaching primarily in the areas of general international law, international energy law, and international law of the sea. He wrote his PhD thesis on the rules and obligations of States in disputed maritime areas at the Netherlands Institute for the Law of the Sea (NILOS), Utrecht University. In addition, he has published several articles and book chapters, which have been cited before international courts and tribunals. His monograph entitled "The Rights and Obligations of States in Disputed Maritime Areas" has been published with Cambridge University Press. Youri has also received awards for academic achievements, including the Rhodes Academy Submarine Cables Award, and has presented at various conferences around the world.

One thought on “Abandoning the myth that decisions rendered by international arbitral tribunals are not binding”

  1. I’m afraid the matter isn’t as clear-cut as all that. The effect of China’s reservation under Article 298(1)(a) has never been adeqautely explained. The tribunal in the Philippines arbitration, if my memory serves me correctly, didn’t elaborate on this point. One wonders what then the effect is of such a reservation under Art. 298(1)(a). If the view is that China’s reservation doesn’t mean that the tribunal could not issue an award in the nature of a “declaratory order”, then that would make sense, because such an order could be issued where China takes part in the arbitration or not. The question is if the LOSC is open to such an interpretation. In my humble opinion, it’s not clear from the award what the tribunal’s argument is in this regard.

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