Antarctic Treaty model for South China Sea

Sir Kenneth Keith, a former judge at the International Court of Justice. Photo: Linda Robertson.
Sir Kenneth Keith, a former judge at the International Court of Justice. Photo: Linda Robertson.
Rising international tensions over disputed areas in the South China Sea could be reduced by nations taking a leaf out of the Antarctic Treaty approach.

That comment was made recently in Dunedin by Sir Kenneth Keith (78), a judge who was the first New Zealander elected to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in its 70-year history.

Sir Kenneth commented in an interview, after giving a University of Otago open lecture, which was part of a series of talks organised by the university’s National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies.

The talk was devoted to "World Peace through World Law: the role of the ICJ and other international courts and tribunals".

An arbitral tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague concluded in July  China had no legal basis to claim "historic rights" to some disputed areas in the South China Sea.

Sir Kenneth emphasised that this tribunal outcome was not the end, but should be only the beginning of continuing dialogue among nations involved with the South China Sea.

"They have to go on living with one another."

The United Nations Charter required nations to settle their international disputes by peaceful means, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Charter also emphasised international co-operation and peaceful resolution of disputes.

New Zealand itself had complex interests in the area, given that China was a major destination for our exports, and also that many of our overall exports were also shipped through the South China Sea.

The territorial disputes involve claims by several countries, including Vietnam, the Philippines and China.

Access to oil, natural gas, minerals and fishing resources are also key factors.

Sir Kenneth said that the Antarctic Treaty model had long proved successful, and many countries, including New Zealand, undertook research in the Antarctic, but the area was demilitarised, and ownership issues had been put to one side.

Sir Kenneth, of Wellington, was one of the 15 judges on the ICJ between 2006 and 2015.

He was earlier a judge of the New Zealand Court of Appeal and Supreme Court.

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