Ligitan and Sipadan dispute

The Ligitan and Sipadan dispute [2002] ICJ 3 was a territorial dispute between Indonesia and Malaysia over two islands in the Celebes Sea, namely Ligitan and Sipadan. The dispute began in 1969 and was largely resolved by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2002, which opined that both of the islands belonged to Malaysia.[1]

Sovereignty over Ligitan and Sipadan Islands (Indonesia v. Malaysia)
CourtInternational Court of Justice
Decided17 December 2002
Citation(s)General List No. 102
Transcript(s)Written proceedings
Case opinions
ICJ awarded both islands to Malaysia based on "effective occupation"
Court membership
Judge(s) sittingGilbert Guillaume, Shi Jiuyong, Shigeru Oda, Raymond Ranjeva, Géza Herczegh, Carl-August Fleischhauer, Abdul Koroma, Vladlen Stepanovich Vereshcheti, Rosalyn Higgins, Gonzalo Parra-Aranguren, Pieter Kooijmans, Francisco Rezek, Awn Shawkat Al-Khasawneh, Thomas Buergenthal, Nabil Elaraby, Thomas Franck (ad hoc judge appointed by Indonesia) and Christopher Weeramantry (ad hoc judge appointed by Malaysia)


Ligitan and Sipadan are two small islands located in the Celebes Sea off the southeastern coast of the Malaysian state of Sabah. Sovereignty over the islands has been disputed by Indonesia and Malaysia since 1969 and intensified in 1991 when Indonesia discovered that Malaysia had built some tourist facilities on Sipadan island.[2][3] Indonesia claimed that it had made a verbal agreement with Malaysia in 1969 to discuss the question of sovereignty over the islands. Malaysia however denied the allegation of an agreement between them, maintaining that the islands have always been part of the territory of its state of Sabah.[2] Both countries have not delimited their maritime zones in the area and the court was not asked to rule on this further matter.[3] On 2 November 1998, both countries agreed to bring the matter to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).[4]

Government of the Philippines request for intervention

The Philippines had applied during the proceedings to intervene over the case on the basis of their claim to northern Borneo.[5] According to the Philippine side, the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu has ceded their rights over North Borneo (present-day Sabah) to the Philippines in 1962.[6] However, a majority of people in the territory chose to become part of Malaysia in 1963 rather than the Philippines under a plebiscite organised by the United Nations.[3][7] The Philippines motive to intervene was questioned by the court, as to whether the Philippines had a "sufficiently strong legal interest" with both Indonesia and Malaysia. The court strongly rejected the Philippines' attempt of intervention and in doing so cited that the request made by the Philippines did not relate to the subject matter of the case. The Philippines query was totally dismissed in June 2001 when after oral hearings the court voted it down by a count of fourteen votes to one.[3]

Court decision

Both of the islands were originally considered as terra nullius. But as Malaysia's predecessor, Great Britain, significantly developed the islands compared to Indonesia's predecessor, the Netherlands, especially after Malaysia's formation as a nation the court using this as the main reason decided to award the islands to Malaysia based on their "effective occupation".[1][8] In addition, it is also acknowledged both of the islands were much closer to Malaysia than Indonesia as well with an earliest documentation from Malaysia over the British 1878 Agreement with the Sultanate of Sulu during which time they acquired the Sultanate area as part of the British Borneo, while the Indonesian claim is mostly based on an 1891 Boundary Treaty between Great Britain and the Netherlands.[3]

See also


  1. "The Court finds that sovereignty over the islands of Ligitan and Sipadan belongs to Malaysia". International Court of Justice. 17 December 2002. Archived from the original on 9 April 2014. Retrieved 7 February 2016.
  2. Renate Haller-Trost (1995). "The Territorial Dispute between Indonesia and Malaysia over Pulau Sipadan and Pulau Ligitan in the Celebes Sea: a Study in International Law". Durham University. Retrieved 7 February 2016.
  3. Shabtai Rosenne (2003). The World Court: What it is and how it Works. United Nations Publications. pp. 223–. ISBN 978-90-04-13816-2.
  4. "Indonesia and Malaysia jointly bring dispute over islands to the International Court of Justice". International Court of Justice. 2 November 1998. Archived from the original on 5 March 2016. Retrieved 7 February 2016.
  5. "Case Concerning Sovereignty over Pulau Ligitan and Pulau Sipadan [Indonesia/Malaysia] (Application for Permission to Intervene by the Government of the Philippines)" (PDF). International Court of Justice. 13 March 2001. Retrieved 7 February 2016.
  6. "Cession and transfer of the territory of North Borneo by His Highness, Sultan Mohammad Esmail Kiram, Sultan of Sulu, acting with the consent and approval of the Ruma Bechara, in council assembled, to the Republic of the Philippines". Government of the Philippines. 24 April 1962. Retrieved 7 February 2016.
  7. "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Federation of Malaya, North Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore (Agreement relating to Malaysia)" (PDF). United Nations. 1963. Archived from the original (PDF) on 13 September 2015. Retrieved 13 September 2015.
  8. Made Andi Arsana (30 January 2013). "Are we losing more islands after Sipadan-Ligitan dispute?". The Jakarta Post. Retrieved 7 February 2016.
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