The United Nation’s highest court has ordered both Thailiand and Cambodia to withdraw troops from a disputed border area around an ancient Khmer temple – the scene of years of violent clashes.
“Both parties should immediately withdraw their military personnel currently present in the provisional demilitarised zone and refrain from any military presence within that zone,” said the order, read by Judge Hisashi Owada, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) president.
The ruling on Monday – at a public sitting in The Hague, the Dutch capital where the ICJ is seated – followed Cambodia’s earlier request to the court, calling for an immediate withdrawal of Thai troops from the area.
Cambodia in late April launched a bitter legal battle before the ICJ in which it asked for an interpretation of a 1962 ICJ ruling around the 900-year-old Preah Vihear temple.
It also asked judges to approve provisional measures including a ban on all Thai military activity in the area.
In Monday’s ruling, the court said the situation “remains unstable” and “could deteriorate” as it defined a demilitarised zone around the temple and urged both countries to engage in talks.
It also ordered both states to allow observers from the Association of South East Asian Nations to enter the area.
Although Thailand did not dispute Cambodia’s ownership of the temple, secured by the 1962 ruling, both sides claimed ownership of the area surrounding the Khmer complex.
Al Jazeera’s Wayne Hay said the ruling did not come as a big surprise. “There were really three options for the court: to order both sides to withdraw, to rule that the Thai side withdraws, or to rule that it had no jurisdiction on the matter.”
Prior to the ruling, Hay, who reported from Sisaket on the Thai side of the border, said “This is the frontline and one of the areas where we have seen some fierce fighting between the Thai and Cambodian troops”.
“Across the ravine on the other side there is the ancient Hindu temple, the Preah Vihear temple, that was judged in 1962 by the ICJ to be Cambodia’s. But no decision was made about this land, 4.6-square-km that both nations claim, and that is what they have been fighting over.”
Thailand had said it would abide by the decision of the ICJ, Hay said.
The two countries orally argued their cases before judges at the end of May with Hor Namhong, Cambodia’s deputy prime minister, asking for “an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all Thai forces from those parts of Cambodian territory situated in the area of the temple of Preah Vihear”.
Cambodia also asked that “Thailand refrained from any act or action which could interfere with the rights of Cambodia or aggravate the dispute in the principal proceedings”.
Appeal for ceasefire
Virachai Plasai, Thailand’s ambassador to the Netherlands, responded by saying his country had asked the ICJ to scrap Cambodia’s case from the court’s general list.
In February the UN appealed for a permanent ceasefire after 10 people were killed in fighting near the temple.
However fresh clashes broke out in April further west, leaving 18 dead and prompting 85,000 civilians to flee.
Cambodia said although there had been clashes in the past, Thai aggression substantially increased after July 2008, when the UN’s cultural body UNESCO listed the temple as a World Heritage site.
Established in 1945, the ICJ is the UN’s highest judicial organ and it settles disputes between states. It is the only one of six principal UN organs not located in New York.