The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

By ignoring the South China Sea ruling, China follows a long line of big powers

Lu Kang, spokesman of the Chinese foreign ministry, speaks to reporters after an international tribunal's ruling about the South China Sea on Tuesday. (AP Photo)

BRUSSELS — After a landmark ruling against China's historical claims over the South China Sea, Beijing followed Tuesday in the tradition of other big nations when they lose such cases: ignore the decision.

Put the word “international” in front of a court, tribunal or panel, and the effect is frequently to sap judges of their power. Many nations, including Russia, the United States and Britain, have disregarded international rulings at some point. And, unlike China, the United States has not even ratified the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which underpinned Tuesday's ruling, so Washington could not be held accountable in a similar way.

There are mixed consequences when countries disregard rulings such as Tuesday's determinations by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. But the biggest one is a hit against a country's global reputation. China’s leaders probably figure they can weather it.

They follow a well-worn path. Most recently, Britain tangled with the same Permanent Court of Arbitration. It ruled that the British government — which sought to create a marine reserve in part of the Indian Ocean — violated the fishing rights of citizens of the island nation of Mauritius. Britain said the tribunal had no jurisdiction to make the ruling. Last year, the tribunal ruled that it did. It is still not clear whether Britain will abide by the ruling.

In 2014, shareholders of Russia’s Yukos Oil Company won a $50 billion judgment in the arbitration panel against the Russian government in efforts to claw back assets lost when company founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky was thrown in prison in 2003 and Yukos was handed over to the Kremlin. Russia still has not paid a cent, and it won an appeal earlier this year in a separate Dutch court. The shareholders are now launching an appeal of their own. In theory, if the shareholders manage to get the ruling upheld, they could claim the Russian government assets abroad, such as embassy buildings.

The United States tends to sit out of international courts and tribunals altogether, so there are fewer examples of the U.S. government’s picking and choosing favorable rulings.

Graham Allison, director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, wrote recently that one comparable case came in the 1980s when Nicaragua sued the United States in the International Court of Justice, a Hague-based court housed in the same building as the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

The justice tribunal ruled that the United States violated international law by supporting the Nicaraguan right-wing rebels, the contras, and by mining Nicaraguan waters during that country’s civil conflict. The United States said that the court had no jurisdiction and blocked Nicaraguan efforts at the U.N. Security Council to win restitution. Washington ultimately prevailed on the Nicaraguan government to withdraw the complaint.

Not all international courts are quite so powerless — although critics contend that international justice tends to work best against those with less global clout, such as African leaders. The International Criminal Court, for example, indicted Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir in 2008 for crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur. Bashir says that the court has no right to go after him, but his travel is effectively restricted only to nations that promise not to hand him over to the court.