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South China Sea Arbitral Awards: Main Findings and Assessment

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The South China Sea arbitration was an unusual case involving many intricate legal and factual issues. The proceedings were both procedurally and substantively complex. In addition, the arbitration was marred from the beginning by China’s refusal to participate in the proceedings. Nevertheless, an arbitral tribunal was constituted in accordance with Annex vii to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Once constituted, the Tribunal was able to conduct the proceedings expeditiously while assuring procedural fairness to both parties. The arbitral proceedings, which lasted three and half years since its initiation by the Philippines in January 2013, eventually produced two voluminous Awards. Both Awards were decided unanimously. The Awards marked an important milestone in terms of clarifying various provisions of the Convention. In particular, the Tribunal clarified the relationship between the Convention and prior historic rights that are at variance with its Convention. The Tribunal also undertook an unprecedented task in determining how Art. 121 (3) of the Convention should be interpreted and applied. The Tribunal took a broad and proactive approach towards the scope of the marine environment as well as that of the obligation of States to protect the marine environment. The Awards, however, are not free of controversy. Questions can be raised as to several aspects of the Awards. The Awards would have implications that go far beyond the immediate dispute. For the dispute between the Philippines and China, it remains to be seen whether the Awards, by addressing some of the most contentious legal issues, would help the Parties to find a constructive solution to their dispute in the South China Sea.


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