INTERNATIONAL AND EUROPEAN LAW
The ICJ’s Judgement in
Somalia v. Kenya
Implications for the Law of the Sea
By its judgement of 2 February 2017, the International Court of Justice took up jurisdiction
to adjudicate the maritime dispute between Somalia and Kenya. Notwithstanding surrounding
controversies, the Court set out important rules concerning the law of treaties. The main impli-
cation of the judgment is that the Court embraced a more objective denition of treaties and
identied the signicance of context as well as
in treaty interpretation.
By doing so, the Court further established itself as the default adjudicator in law of the sea
disputes unless the reservation to its jurisdiction is suciently precise. This case note sum-
marises the facts and analyses the potential ramications of this judgement on international
Keywords: Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties; United Nations Convention on the Law of
the Sea; Memorandum of Understanding;
; delimitation; delineation
I. Background and the Majority Opinion
Somalia initiated the proceedings against Kenya in the International Court of Justice (hereinafter “the
Court”) regarding a disputed Exclusive Economic Zone of around 42,000 square kilometers. Somalia
based its claim on both parties’ acceptance of the Court’s compulsory jurisdiction under Art. 36(2) of the
Court’s Statute, otherwise known as the “optional clause declarations”. In response, Kenya pointed to the
reservation it made under the article, which excludes the Court from dealing with disputes ‘in regard to
which the parties to the dispute have agreed or shall agree to have recourse to some other method or methods
of settlement’.1 Kenya put forward two independent objections to the Court’s jurisdiction and the admis-
sibility of the case: first, it pointed out that a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed between the
disputing parties constituted an agreement to have recourse to some other methods of settlement. Second,
Kenya argued that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to which both States
are parties, contains a dispute resolution mechanism that also amounts to an agreement to have recourse
to some other methods.
In relation to the first objection, the Court found that it had to first ascertain the legal status of the MOU
before analysing its content. The MOU was signed by the Kenyan Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Somali
Minister of National Planning and International Cooperation on 7 April 2009, before subsequently being
registered by the Secretariat of the United Nations on 11 June 2009 at Kenya’s request. Despite initially
recognising the MOU, the Somali authorities later denied the validity of the instrument, publicly labeling it
as “non-actionable” and “void” respectively in October 2009 and February 2014.2 In addition to its constant
protests against the MOU, Somalia further argued that the MOU was not ratified by its Parliament and that
allowing a Minister to sign binding bilateral agreement was ‘not customary for Somalia’.3 These contentions
were, however, rejected by the Court. First, the Court appeared to consider that Somalia’s protests were
* Université Paris 2 Panthéon-Assas, Paris, FR. Contact: email@example.com.
United Nations, 531 Treaty Series 114. Emphasis added.
Somalia v. Kenya, Judgement on Preliminary Objections (2 February 2017) paras 18–19.
ibid. para 38.