China’s Defiance of International Court Has Precedent—U.S. Defiance

By JEREMY PAGE / July 7, 2016 /

BEIJING—Beijing’s determination to reject an international tribunal’s ruling next week on its South China Sea claims is unusual but not unprecedented. There is one especially notable case of a powerful nation ignoring an international court’s verdict: the U.S.

In 1986, the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled in favor of Nicaragua in a case the Central American nation brought against the U.S. for aiding Nicaraguan Contra rebels and mining the country’s ports in a bid to undermine its socialist government.

The U.S. boycotted most of the proceedings, saying the court had no jurisdiction, and refused to observe its verdict, which granted Nicaragua an initial award of $370 million. The U.S. then used its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council to veto resolutions demanding it observe the Nicaragua ruling, ignored another passed by the U.N. General Assembly, and only stopped aiding the Contras when blocked by the U.S. Congress in 1988.

China’s case at the Permanent Court of Arbitration, also in The Hague, was similarly brought by a small country against its giant neighbor. The Philippines argues that China’s claims over a vast expanse of the South China Sea, which Beijing has delineated with a “nine-dash line,” violate international law.

China also disputed the court’s jurisdiction and refused to take part in the proceedings. And if, as expected, the tribunal rules against China on several counts, Beijing is expected to adopt an approach similar to that of the U.S. 30 years ago: Ignore the ruling and muscle through.

That, however, is “not the end of the story,” said Paul Reichler, the lead lawyer for the Philippines, who also represented Nicaragua against the U.S.
He described the earlier case as a “blemish on the U.S. moral posture and its ability to project itself as a promoter of a rules-based international order.” China would face similar reputational damage, he said, as well as further legal challenges, if it disregarded the ruling.

As with many cases involving international law, the verdict, while legally binding, can only be enforced through international pressure—and the U.S. and its allies are sure to continue pressing Beijing to comply. Read more…


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