Top maritime judge to hear PH case vs China

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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The Philippines' case falls in the hands of the first president of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea

VETERAN JUDGE. Thomas Mensah of Ghana (first from left) will hear the Philippines' case against China. File photo from the International Foundation for the Law of the Sea

MANILA, Philippines – He led the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) when it was founded in 1996. Now, the seasoned judge from Ghana heads the panel to hear the Philippines’ case against China. 

The ITLOS has named Thomas Mensah, the first ITLOS head, as president of the 5-member arbitral tribunal that is hoped to settle the two countries’ dispute over portions of the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). He will also serve as an arbitrator.

Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) spokesman Raul Hernandez, who confirmed this Tuesday, June 25, said ITLOS president Shunji Yanai appointed Mensah last June 21. The ITLOS informed the Philippines about this on the same day.

Mensah will take this post after the arbitral tribunal’s former president, Chris Pinto of Sri Lanka, resigned due to conflict of interest. Pinto’s wife is Filipino.

Now 81 years old, Mensah served as the first president of ITLOS from 1996 to 1999. He is currently the deputy chairman of the International Foundation of the Law of the Sea.

He worked for over two decades at the International Maritime Organization in London, as legal counsel and assistant secretary general. He also taught at the World Maritime University for almost a decade.

With Mensah’s appointment, the arbitral tribunal is now composed of the following: 

  1. Judge Thomas Mensah (Ghana), president;

  2. Judge Rüdiger Wolfrum (Germany), member, current ITLOS judge;

  3. Judge Stanislaw Pawlak (Poland), member, current ITLOS judge;

  4. Judge Jean-Pierre Cot (France), member, current ITLOS judge; and

  5. Judge Alfred Soons (The Netherlands), member

China refuses case but…

The Philippines decided to bring the territorial row before the ITLOS after it “has exhausted all political and diplomatic avenues for a peaceful negotiated settlement of its maritime dispute with China.”

The Philippines said it will ask the tribunal to declare China’s claims as “invalid.” China, on the other hand, formally rejected the arbitral proceedings initiated by the Philippines.

China’s refusal, however, will not necessarily impede the proceedings, according to Annex VII of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Article 9 of Annex VII says: “If one of the parties to the dispute does not appear before the arbitral tribunal or fails to defend its case, the other party may request the tribunal to continue the proceedings and to make its award. Absence of a party or failure of a party to defend its case shall not constitute a bar to the proceedings. Before making its award, the arbitral tribunal must satisfy itself not only that it has jurisdiction over the dispute but also that the claim is well founded in fact and law.” –

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Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior multimedia reporter covering religion for Rappler. He also teaches journalism at the University of Santo Tomas. For story ideas or feedback, email