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II. Substantive International Law - Second Part
1.1. Acquisition and Loss
1.1.2.Legal or Historic Title

¤ Case Concerning Sovereignty over
Pulau Ligitan and Pulau Sipadan
(Indonesia v. Malaysia)
Judgment of 17 December 2002

[pp. ] 108. The Court notes at the outset that the islands in dispute are not mentioned by name in any of the international legal instruments presented by Malaysia to prove the alleged consecutive transfers of title.

The Court further notes that the two islands were not included in the grant by which the Sultan of Sulu ceded all his rights and powers over his possessions in Borneo, including the islands within a limit of 3 marine leagues, to Alfred Dent and Baron von Overbeck on 22 January 1878, a fact not contested by the Parties.

Finally, the Court observes that, while the Parties both maintain that the islands of Ligitan and Sipadan were not terrae nullius during the period in question in the present case, they do so on the basis of diametrically opposed reasoning, each of them claiming to hold title to those islands.

109. The Court will first deal with the question whether Ligitan and Sipadan were part of the possessions of the Sultan of Sulu. It is not contested by the Parties that geographically these islands do not belong to the Sulu Archipelago proper. In all relevant documents, however, the Sultanate is invariably described as “the Archipelago of Sulu and the dependencies thereof” or “the Island of Sooloo with all its dependencies”. In a number of these documents its territorial extent is rather vaguely defined as “compris[ing] all the islands which are found between the western extremity of the island of Mindanao, on the one side, and the continent of Borneo and the island of Paragua, on the other side” (Protocol between Spain, Germany and Great Britain, 7 March 1885; see also the Capitulations concluded between Spain and the Sultan of Sulu, 23 September 1836). These documents, therefore, provide no answer to the question whether Ligitan and Sipadan, which are located at a considerable distance from the main island of Sulu, were part of the Sultanate’s dependencies.

110. Malaysia relies on the ties of allegiance which allegedly existed between the Sultan of Sulu and the Bajau Laut who inhabited the islands off the coast of North Borneo and who from time to time may have made use of the two uninhabited islands. The Court is of the opinion that such ties may well have existed but that they are in themselves not sufficient to provide evidence that the Sultan of Sulu claimed territorial title to these two small islands or considered them part of his possessions. Nor is there any evidence that the Sultan actually exercised authority over Ligitan and Sipadan.

111. Turning now to the alleged transfer of title over Ligitan and Sipadan to Spain, the Court notes that in the Protocol between Spain and Sulu Confirming the Bases of Peace and Capitulation of 22 July 1878 the Sultan of Sulu definitively ceded the “Archipelago of Sulu and the dependencies thereof” to Spain. In the Protocol of 7 March 1885 concluded between Spain, Germany and Great Britain, the Spanish Government relinquished, as far as regarded the British Government, all claims of sovereignty over the territory of North Borneo and the neighbouring islands within a zone of 3 marine leagues, mentioned in the 1878 Dent-von Overbeck grant, whereas Great Britain and Germany recognized Spanish sovereignty over “the places effectively occupied, as well over those places not yet so occupied, of the Archipelago of Sulu (Joló), of which the boundaries are determined in Article 2”. Article 2 contains the rather vague definition mentioned in paragraph 109 above.

112. It is not contested between the Parties that Spain at no time showed an interest in the islands in dispute or the neighbouring islands and that it did not extend its authority to these islands. Nor is there any indication in the case file that Spain gave notice of its occupation of these islands, in accordance with the procedure provided for in Article 4 of the 1885 Protocol. Nor is it contested that, in the years after 1878, the BNBC gradually extended its administration to islands lying beyond the 3-marine-league limit without, however, claiming title to them and without protest from Spain.

113. The Court therefore cannot but conclude that there is no evidence that Spain considered Ligitan and Sipadan as covered by the 1878 Protocol between Spain and the Sultan of Sulu or that Germany and Great Britain recognized Spanish sovereignty over them in the 1885 Protocol. It cannot be disputed, however, that the Sultan of Sulu relinquished the sovereign rights over all his possessions in favour of Spain, thus losing any title he may have had over islands located beyond the 3-marine-league limit from the coast of North Borneo. He was therefore not in a position to declare in 1903 that such islands had been included in the 1878 grant to Alfred Dent and Baron von Overbeck.

114. The Court, therefore, is of the opinion that Spain was the only State which could have laid claim to Ligitan and Sipadan by virtue of the relevant instruments but that there is no evidence that it actually did so. It further observes that at the time neither Great Britain, on behalf of the State of North Borneo, nor the Netherlands explicitly or implicitly laid claim to Ligitan and Sipadan.

115. The next link in the chain of transfers of title is the Treaty of 7 November 1900 between the United States and Spain, by which Spain “relinquish[ed] to the United States all title and claim of title ... to any and all islands belonging to the Philippine Archipelago” which had not been covered by the Treaty of Peace of 10 December 1898. Mention was made in particular of the islands of Cagayan Sulu and Sibutu, but no other islands which were situated closer to the coast of North Borneo were mentioned by name.

116. The Court first notes that, although it is undisputed that Ligitan and Sipadan were not within the scope of the 1898 Treaty of Peace, the 1900 Treaty does not specify islands, apart from Cagayan Sulu and Sibutu and their dependencies, that Spain ceded to the United States. Spain nevertheless relinquished by that Treaty any claim it may have had to Ligitan and Sipadan or other islands beyond the 3-marine-league limit from the coast of North Borneo.

117. Subsequent events show that the United States itself was uncertain to which islands it had acquired title under the 1900 Treaty. The correspondence between the United States Secretary of State and the United States Secretaries of War and of the Navy in the aftermath of the voyage of the USS Quiros and the re-edition of a map of the United States Hydrographic Office, the first version of which had contained a line of separation between United States and British possessions attributing Ligitan and Sipadan to the United States, demonstrate that the State Department had no clear idea of the territorial and maritime extent of the Philippine Archipelago, title to which it had obtained from Spain. In this respect the Court notes that the United States Secretary of State in his letter of 23 October 1903 to the Acting Secretary of War wrote that a bilateral arrangement with Great Britain was necessary “to trace the line demarking [their] respective jurisdictions”, whereas with regard to Sipadan he explicitly stated that he was not in a position to determine whether “Sipadan and the included keys and rocks had been recognized as lying within the dominions of Sulu”.

118. A temporary arrangement between Great Britain and the United States was made in 1907 by an Exchange of Notes. This Exchange of Notes, which did not involve a transfer of territorial sovereignty, provided for a continuation of the administration by the BNBC of the islands situated more than 3 marine leagues from the coast of North Borneo but left unresolved the issue to which of the parties these islands belonged. There was no indication to which of the islands administered by the BNBC the United States claimed title and the question of sovereignty was therefore left in abeyance. No conclusion therefore can be drawn from the 1907 Exchange of Notes as regards sovereignty over Ligitan and Sipadan.

119. This temporary arrangement lasted until 2 January 1930, when a Convention was concluded between Great Britain and the United States in which a line was drawn separating the islands belonging to the Philippine Archipelago on the one hand and the islands belonging to the State of North Borneo on the other hand. Article III of that Convention stated that all islands to the south and west of the line should belong to the State of North Borneo. From a point well to the north- east of Ligitan and Sipadan, the line extended to the north and to the east. The Convention did not mention any island by name apart from the Turtle and Mangsee Islands, which were declared to be under United States sovereignty.

120. By concluding the 1930 Convention, the United States relinquished any claim it might have had to Ligitan and Sipadan and to the neighbouring islands. But the Court cannot conclude either from the 1907 Exchange of Notes or from the 1930 Convention or from any document emanating from the United States Administration in the intervening period that the United States did claim sovereignty over these islands. It can, therefore, not be said with any degree of certainty that by the 1930 Convention the United States transferred title to Ligitan and Sipadan to Great Britain, as Malaysia asserts.

121. On the other hand, the Court cannot let go unnoticed that Great Britain was of the opinion that as a result of the 1930 Convention it acquired, on behalf of the BNBC, title to all the islands beyond the 3-marine-league zone which had been administered by the Company, with the exception of the Turtle and the Mangsee Islands. To none of the islands lying beyond the 3-marine-league zone had it ever before laid a formal claim. Whether such title in the case of Ligitan and Sipadan and the neighbouring islands was indeed acquired as a result of the 1930 Convention is less relevant than the fact that Great Britain’s position on the effect of this Convention was not contested by any other State.

122. The State of North Borneo was transformed into a colony in 1946. Subsequently, by virtue of Article IV of the Agreement of 9 July 1963, the Government of the United Kingdom agreed to take “such steps as [might] be appropriate and available to them to secure the enactment by the Parliament of the United Kingdom of an Act providing for the relinquishment ... of Her Britannic Majesty’s sovereignty and jurisdiction in respect of North Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore” in favour of Malaysia.

123. In 1969 Indonesia challenged Malaysia’s title to Ligitan and Sipadan and claimed to have title to the two islands on the basis of the 1891 Convention.

124. In view of the foregoing, the Court concludes that it cannot accept Malaysia’s contention that there is an uninterrupted series of transfers of title from the alleged original title-holder, the Sultan of Sulu, to Malaysia as the present one. It has not been established with certainty that Ligitan and Sipadan belonged to the possessions of the Sultan of Sulu nor that any of the alleged subsequent title-holders had a treaty-based title to these two islands. The Court can therefore not find that Malaysia has inherited a treaty-based title from its predecessor, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

125. The Court has already found that the 1891 Convention does not provide Indonesia with a treaty-based title and that title to the islands did not pass to Indonesia as successor to the Netherlands and the Sultan of Bulungan.