May 30, 2008 By JOHN TEO
Nur Misuari has broached the idea of referring the Sabah dispute to the International Court of Justice.
THE International Court of Justice's split decision in the case of Pedra Branca has established a clear precedent regarding sovereignty over disputed territories, in the two recent cases wherein Malaysia referred disputes to the court.
In an echo of the decision to award Sipadan and Ligitan off Sabah to Malaysia when sovereignty over the islands was disputed by Indonesia, the ICJ awarded Pedra Branca to Singapore over an indisputable premise: the island republic has maintained and operated a lighthouse there over many years. This despite clear documentary evidence that ownership of the island had originally belonged with Johor.
The case already has some regional ramifications. Nur Misuari, the disgraced former governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, the Philippines, recently reprieved from incarceration by President Gloria Arroyo, lost little time in pronouncing an intention to refer the question of Sabah to the ICJ.
Misuari is, of course, merely posturing in hopes of making a political comeback. Threatening a revival of the Sabah claim is every populist Filipino politician's way to rouse the masses, usually accompanied by attempts to whip up popular sentiment over alleged instances of mistreatment of the hundreds of thousands of Filipinos in Sabah.
Raising the Sabah bogey is also the weapon of choice for Philippine politicians whenever they have a particular axe to grind against Malaysia. And Misuari clearly has a personal grudge against us -- he had fled to our shores in hopes of escaping the long arm of Philippine law only to have the Malaysian government send him back home.
Whatever his personal agenda, Misuari broaching the idea of referring the Sabah dispute to the ICJ is obviously a non-starter, as any ICJ referral must first meet with the mutual consent of both disputant countries.
That said, the precedent set by the Sipadan and Ligitan and Pedra Branca cases should actually embolden Malaysia to heartily welcome any official Philippine proposal to refer the Sabah claim to the ICJ for final resolution once and for all.
While the Philippines may have a leg to stand on based on the proprietary rights of the heirs of the Sulu sultanate over Sabah, Malaysian sovereignty over Sabah is an altogether different matter entirely.
Sabah will have been 45 years independent within Malaysia this September, and is internationally recognised as a constituent state of the Malaysian federation. It was under British colonial rule before that and hardly any of us living today can recall a time when the Sulu sultanate exercised any political influence, much less control, over it. The ICJ will have an easy time deciding for Malaysia, if you ask me.
Political posturing out of the Philippines over Sabah is only a minor nuisance to us, and has not prevented both our countries from developing otherwise good neighbourly relations. We can easily live with the prevailing status quo because, if anything, the Sabah claim will only further weaken over time.
But if Arroyo is actually casting about for something appropriately statesman-like with which to end her presidency in two years' time, she might want to consider bringing closure to the wound afflicting our bilateral relations since her father initiated the Sabah claim when he was president, at the time of Malaysia's formation.
The avenue of impartial arbitration offered by the ICJ provides perfect political cover from any accusation of a national sell-out were the Philippines to initiate unilateral steps to drop the claim -- a fraught political process even if attempted.
Three of the five original member countries of Asean have now shown enough maturity to submit their territorial disputes to the ICJ.
The Sabah claim is, of course, in a league of its own, but if Malaysia and the Philippines can agree to also take this route to finally resolve it, Asean would really be leading the world in the peaceful resolution of such disputes between nations by adhering to the norms of established international law.