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World Court Digest

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)
Application by the Philippines
for Permission to Intervene
Judgment of 23 October 2001

[p. 652 S.O. Franck] 2. ... I wish to explicate a legal basis for the Court’s decision which, while consistent with it, has not been advanced by the Court, perhaps because it was insufficiently advanced by the Parties, although discussed in passing by Malaysia (CR 2001/2, p. 56, para. 10 (Lauterpacht)) and the Philippines (CR 2001/3, p. 23, para. 14 (Magallona)). I shall endeavour to demonstrate why that legal basis is of some importance and why the Court need not have been deterred from making this clear. The point of law is quite simple, but ultimately basic to the international rule of law. It is this: historic title, no matter how persuasively claimed on the basis of old legal instruments and exercises of authority, cannot - except in the most extraordinary circumstances - prevail in law over the rights of non-self-governing people to claim independence and establish their sovereignty through the exercise of bona fide self-determination.

[pp. 655-658 S.O. Franck] 9. Under traditional international law, the right to territory was vested exclusively in rulers of States. Lands were the property of a sovereign to be defended or conveyed in accordance with the laws relevant to the recognition, exercise and transfer of sovereign domain. In order to judicially determine a claim to territorial title erga omnes, it was necessary to engage with the forms of international conveyancing, tracing historic title through to a critical date or dates to determine which State exercised territorial sovereignty at that point in time. Under modern international law, however, the enquiry must necessarily be broader, particularly in the context of decolonization. In particular, the infusion of the concept of the rights of a “people” into this traditional legal scheme, notably the right of peoples to self-determination, fundamentally alters the significance of historic title to the determination of sovereign title.

10. Previous judgments of this Court (in particular, its Advisory Opinion of 26 January 1971 on the Legal Consequences for States of the Continued Presence of South Africa in Namibia (South West Africa) notwithstanding Security Council Resolution 276 (1970), I.C.J. Reports 1971, pp. 31-32, paras. 52-53 and its Advisory Opinion of 16 October 1975 in Western Sahara, I.C.J. Reports 1975, pp. 31-33, paras. 54-59) contribute to and recognize the development of the right of non-self-governing peoples to self-determination which “requires a free and genuine expression of the will of the peoples concerned” (Western Sahara, ibid., p. 32, para. 55). The Court recognized in the Namibia case that, “the subsequent development of international law in regard to non-self-governing territories, as enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations, made the principle of self-determination applicable to all of them” (I.C.J. Reports 1971, p. 31, para. 52). In the case concerning East Timor (Portugal v. Australia), the Court recognized the principle of self-determination to be “one of the essential principles of contemporary international law” (I.C.J. Reports 1995, p. 102, para. 29).

11. The decisions of this Court confirm the prime importance of this principle of self-determination of peoples. The firm basis for the principle is also anchored in universal treaty law, State practice and opinio juris. Article 1, paragraph 2, of the United Nations Charter indicates that one of the purposes of the United Nations is “[t]o develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples”. The principle also finds express and implied reflection in other provisions of the Charter, namely Article 55, Article 73 and Article 76 (b). Common Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights provides that “[a]ll peoples have the right of self-determination”, and emphasizes in Article 1 (3), that “States Parties to the present Covenant . . . shall respect [the] right [of self-determination], in conformity with the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations”.

12. This treaty law has been affirmed, developed and given more tangible form by numerous resolutions of the General Assembly, which have consistently received broad support. General Assembly resolution 637 (VII), adopted on 16 December 1952, was an early recognition that “every Member of the United Nations, in conformity with the Charter, should respect the maintenance of the right of self-determination”, a right which was stated to be a “prerequisite to the full enjoyment of all fundamental human rights”. The “Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples”, General Assembly resolution 1514 (XV), adopted without dissent on 14 December 1960, is regarded as fundamental to the process of decolonization. It is applicable to all “territories which have not yet attained independence” and establishes that “[a]ll peoples have the right to self-determination” while insisting that “[a]ny attempt aimed at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and the territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations”. In General Assembly resolution 1541 (XV), adopted with only two dissents on 15 December 1960, the General Assembly contemplated more than one method of self-determination for non-self-governing territories, including “[i]ntegration with an independent State”. General Assembly resolution 2131 (XX), “Declaration on the Inadmissibility of Intervention in the Domestic Affairs of States and the Protection of Their Independence and Sovereignty”, adopted by 109 countries without dissent on 21 December 1965, declared that, “[a]ll States shall respect the right of self-determination and independence of peoples and nations, to be freely exercised without any foreign pressure, and with absolute respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms”. The principle of self-determination was further included among the “basic principles of international law” set out in the “Declaration on Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation among States in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations”, adopted by consensus as the Annex to resolution 2625 (XXV) on 24 October 1970. According to this document, “all peoples have the right freely to determine, without external interference, their political status and to pursue their economic, social and cultural development, and every State has the duty to respect this right in accordance with the provisions of the Charter” (emphasis added).

13. The independence of North Borneo was brought about as the result of the expressed wish of the majority of the people of the territory in a 1963 election. The Secretary-General of the United Nations was entrusted under the Manila Accord of 31 July 1963 with the task of ascertaining the wishes of the people of North Borneo, and reported that the majority of the peoples of North Borneo had given serious and thoughtful consideration to their future and:

“[had] concluded that they wish to bring their dependent status to an end and to realize their independence through freely chosen association with other peoples in their region with whom they feel ties of ethnic association, heritage, language, religion, culture, economic relationship, and ideals and objectives.” (Quoted by the Representative of Malaysia to the General Assembly, 1219th meeting, 27 September 1963, Official Records of the General Assembly, 18th Session, UN Doc. No. A/PV.1219.)

14. In 1963, Britain filed its last report to the United Nations on North Borneo as an Article 73 (e) Non-Self-Governing Territory (Note by the Secretary-General, Political and Constitutional Information on Asian Territories under United Kingdom Administration, UN Doc. No. A/5402/Add.4 (4 April 1963)). Thereafter, the United Nations removed North Borneo from the list of colonial territories under its decolonization jurisdiction (see Yearbook of the United Nations, 1964, pp. 411-435, which omits North Borneo from the Committee’s list of territories), thereby accepting that the process of decolonization had been completed by a valid exercise of self-determination.

15. Accordingly, in light of the clear exercise by the people of North Borneo of their right to self-determination, it cannot matter whether this Court, in any interpretation it might give to any historic instrument or efficacy, sustains or not the Philippines claim to historic title. Modern international law does not recognize the survival of a right of sovereignty based solely on historic title; not, in any event, after an exercise of self-determination conducted in accordance with the requisites of international law, the bona fides of which has received international recognition by the political organs of the United Nations. Against this, historic claims and feudal pre-colonial titles are mere relics of another international legal era, one that ended with the setting of the sun on the age of colonial imperium.

16. The lands and people claimed by the Philippines formerly constituted most of an integral British dependency. In accordance with the law pertaining to decolonization, its population exercised their right of self-determination. What remains is no mere boundary dispute. It is an attempt to keep alive a right to reverse the free and fair decision taken almost 40 years ago by the people of North Borneo in the exercise of their legal right to self-determination. The Court cannot be a witting party to that.