KL and Jakarta meet to prepare claims on disputed islands

Talks to set guidelines for International Court of Justice

SENIOR officials from Indonesia and Malaysia began a two-day meeting in Bandung yesterday to map out preparations for submitting claims on the Sipadan and Ligatan islands to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Diplomats and analysts interviewed by The Straits Times said the talks would iron out details of the submission process before the dispute is referred to the ICJ in The Hague.

Both countries agreed to third-party mediation when Indonesian President Suharto met Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad in Kuala Lumpur last October. The two countries have been trying to resolve the issue since 1991.

Said Mr Izhar Ibrahim, the Indonesian Foreign Ministry’s Director-General for Political Affairs: “This is a consultative meeting to prepare the draft of a special agreement on the issue to be signed by the two foreign ministers before submitting it to the ICJ.”

Both Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur lay claim to the small islands which lay off the coast of East Kalimantan, basing their arguments on the territorial possessions of their former colonial rulers.

Among the complex legal issues that need to be worked out is whether the ICJ should only make an interpretation of the British-Dutch agreement in 1891, one of the primary sources of the overlapping claims.

The meeting also needs to work out if the ICJ’s decision should determine the maritime borders around the two islands.

“The whole purpose of the meeting is to give clear guidelines to the court so that it will not act beyond its jurisdiction,” said an Indonesian diplomat.

Observers were optimistic that the two countries would work out details for the submission process as soon as the matter had the “blessing” of the two countries’ political leaders.

Said Dr Kusnanto Anggoro, a regional security expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Jakarta-based think-tank: “Tensions still exist between Indonesia and Malaysia on a number of issues. What is important in this case is that the leaders of the two countries have agreed to end the stalemate. The two foreign ministries will have to take the cue from there.”

He said that it would only be a matter of time before the case is referred to the ICJ, a view that is shared by Prof Juwono Sudarsono, the deputy governor of Indonesia’s National Defence Institute.

“There is a general expectation from both sides to push this matter through the ICJ. It is unlikely that Indonesia and Malaysia will come out with a dramatically different proposal at the end of this meeting.”

Military sources said that while the Indonesian armed forces had initially spoken out strongly against third-party involvement in the settlement, it was more supportive of the move now.

Said a senior military officer: “The question now is whether the conflicting parties will honour the status quo of the islands while they wait for a decision from the ICJ.”

He said that Ligitan and Sipadan were still being targeted for tourist development by some foreign companies.

Malaysia’s National Security Council secretary, Mr Jaafar Ismail, however, said last October that the NSC’s security division would monitor the islands, warning “tough action” against companies which failed to follow a directive that ordered a halt to projects on the disputed islands.

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