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IBRU: Centre for Borders Research

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ICJ defines area of Cambodian territory around the Temple of Preah Vihear

(13 November 2013)

In a unanimous Judgment delivered on 11 November 2013, the International Court of Justice decided that it had jurisdiction over Cambodia’s 2011 Request for interpretation of the Court’s 1962 Judgment which found that the Temple of Preah Vihear is situated in territory under the sovereignty of Cambodia, and ruled that the area under Cambodian sovereignty is “the whole territory of the promontory of Preah Vihear”.
The government of Thailand challenged the ICJ’s jurisdiction to entertain Cambodia’s Request for interpretation of the 1962 Judgment. However, the Court concluded that there was sufficient disagreement between the Parties over the meaning and scope of the Judgment that there was a need for interpretation of the second operative paragraph concerning the withdrawal of Thai forces stationed “at the Temple, or in its vicinity on Cambodian territory”, and of the legal effect of what the Court said regarding the “Annex I map line” which depicted the results of the work of a mixed boundary commission in the Dangrek mountains between 1904 and 1907.

The central dispute between the parties identified by the Court concerned the extent of the “vicinity” or “area” of the Temple of Preah Vihear (Phra Viharn in Thai) which comprises Cambodian territory. Thailand had defined its interpretation of the vicinity of the Temple shortly after the 1962 Judgment by erecting a fence adjacent to the Temple ruins, and retained that interpretation in its pleadings in the recently-concluded proceedings. The Court agreed with Cambodia’s claim that it had never accepted Thailand’s interpretation, and concluded that relevant evidence showed that the Thai interpretation was too narrow in its extent. However, nor did the Court fully accept the more expansive interpretation of the vicinity of the Temple put forward by Cambodia during the 2011-13 proceedings which included Phnom Trap, the mountain adjacent to Preah Vihear to the west. Instead the Court concluded that the term “vicinity” used by the Court in the 1962 Judgment meant only the promontory on which the Temple sits.

The Judgment defines the area of the promontory with reference to natural features and the Annex 1 map line. The Judgment notes that to the east, south and south-west, the promontory drops in a steep escarpment to the Cambodian plain, and that the parties were in agreement in 1962 that the escarpment was under Cambodian sovereignty; this implies that the Court regards the top of the escarpment as the limit of the promontory. To the west and north-west, the Judgment describes the limit of the promontory as the foot of the hill of Phnom Trap, i.e. where the ground begins to rise from towards Phnom Trap in the valley between that mountain and Preah Vihear. To the north, the Judgment defines the limit of the promontory as the Annex 1 map line. The Court acknowledged Thailand’s arguments concerning the difficulty of locating the map line on the ground, but claimed that because the 1962 Judgment did not address that question, nor could it do so in the present Judgment. The Parties are therefore left to negotiate the location of the Annex 1 map line and the points where it intersects with the escarpment to the north-east of the Temple and the foot of Phnom Trap to the north-west. Until this line is agreed, it is not possible to calculate the exact size of the area of the promontory as defined by the Court.

Although the section of the Annex 1 map line used by the Court to define the northern limit of the promontory is likely to become part of a future boundary between Cambodia and Thailand, the Court concluded that it was not necessary “further to address the question whether the 1962 Judgment determined with binding force the boundary line between the two states”. In 1962 the Court indicated that the Annex 1 map had become part of the treaty settlement, but the Parties continue to disagree over the implications of that statement for the boundary throughout the Dangrek range. In terms of the wider task of boundary-making, therefore, the 2013 Judgment provides little assistance to the Parties. However, the Judgment makes it clear that the Court was not asked to delimit a boundary in the original case, and therefore could not do so in its interpretation, except to the extent that it has clarified the limits of Cambodian sovereignty in the small area around the Temple of Preah Vihear that was the subject of the original case. Cambodia and Thailand therefore still have much work to do in defining their boundary with precision. However, with both governments welcoming the Judgment and acknowledging the need for cooperation and negotiations in good faith, there are grounds for optimism that the conclusion of the case will help to bring an end to the tensions that have existed over the Temple and the Cambodia-Thailand boundary more generally for more than half a century.

Although the Judgment of the Court was unanimous, three Judges appended a joint declaration, Judge Cançado Trinidade appended a separate opinion and both Judges ad hoc nominated by the parties appended declarations to the Judgment. As with all ICJ cases, the Judgment, declarations and separate opinions of the Judges, and the written and oral submissions of the Parties are available for download from the ICJ website.

Source: Request for Interpretation of the Judgment of 15 June 1962 in the Case Concerning the Temple of Preah Vihear (Cambodia v. Thailand), Judgment of 11 November 2013.

Note: IBRU provided technical and cartographic assistance to the government of Thailand during the interpretation proceedings. Every effort has been made to ensure this this report provides an impartial summary of the Judgment.