The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands, on July 12 ruled in favor of the Philippines in a maritime dispute with China, concluding that China’s claims of historical rights over the bulk of the South China Sea were invalid.
So far commentaries have largely put emphasis on military, strategic and economic concerns. In fact, this arbitration award is not just an issue of geopolitics and sovereignty, but about the sustainability and wellbeing of our international commons.
The South China Sea is one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet — home to nearly 76 percent of the world’s coral species and 37 percent of the world’s reef fish. After consulting numerous experts and examining satellite imagery, the arbitral tribunal found that China’s recent large-scale land reclamation and construction of artificial islands in the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) had caused grave harm to the coral reef environment and fragile ecosystems.
In addition, the final ruling clearly said that Chinese authorities were “fully aware of” and “actively tolerated” Chinese fishermen using propellers to harvest endangered giant clams — a method that damages marine life. These activities violate China’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
University of Miami, Florida, marine biology professor John McManus has called upon China and other nations in the region to end their conflicting views over territory and declare the South China Sea a special protection zone, like the Antarctic Specially Protected Area.
This proposal is morally appreciated and theoretically possible under international law, but it might face practical difficulties in this case. In particular, the disputed area is strategically important for military forces, the transport of international trade and hydrocarbon drilling.
However, we should not overlook the role of environmental peace-building in post-conflict settings. More specifically, internationalized management of natural resources can provide a useful opportunity to build trust between nations. International environmental law could mainstream sustainable considerations into the post-conflict activities of nations and international organizations.
Successful examples include environmental cooperation on water resources as specifically addressed in Annex IV of the October 1994 peace agreement between Israel and Jordan. Peru and Ecuador jointly created and manage “peace parks” — ecological protection zones in the Cordillera del Condor, Ecuador — as part of efforts to end long-standing border disputes.
At the multinational level, the World Bank has established a Post-Conflict Fund to finance projects with environmental sustainability elements, such as the 2012 recovery plan of Mindanao in the Philippines. Furthermore, since 1999, the UN Environment Program’s Post Conflict and Disaster Management Branch has managed several post-crisis environmental assessments in Afghanistan, Nigeria, Congo, Syria and the Balkans. These types of environmental assessments are sometimes explicitly featured in international litigation documents.
Overall, these efforts suggest that environmental considerations are continuously affecting peacemaking activities worldwide. Today, although Beijing has not addressed any environmental issue in its public statements, a multilateral action plan for South China Sea regional assessment and ecological restoration should be included in the post-arbitration negotiation agenda. Ultimately, international lawyers might not only defend the political interests of their nations, but also the beauty of our environment.
Yang Chung-han is a doctoral candidate researching international environmental law at the University of Cambridge and a member of the Taipei Bar Association.
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