Colombia rejects Hague ruling in Nicaragua maritime dispute

The International Court of Justice at The Hague ruled Nov. 19 that a cluster of disputed islets off Central America’s Caribbean coast belong to Colombia and not to Nicaragua—but drew a demarcation line in favor of Nicaragua in the disputed waters. The move immedaitely sparked protests in cities across Colombia, including MedellĂ­n, Cali and Cartagena. Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos flew to the island of San AndrĂ©s, the seat of the disputed archipelago, to support protests there. Slogans included “The fatherland is not for sale,” “Why should we quit our sea?,” and “ICJ, how much did the multinations give you for this ruling?” 

The ICJ ruling awarded the islets of Roncador, Quitasueno, Serrana, Serranilla, Bajo Nuevo, Cayo Bolivar and Alburquerque to Colombia but increased the size of Nicaragua’s economic exclusion zone in the Caribbean, potentially giving it access to underwater oil and gas deposits as well as fishing rights. “The court agrees that the achievement of an equitable solution requires a line of delimitation to allow the parties to attain their maritime rights in a mutually balanced way,” said presiding judge Peter Tomka.

The most immediately impacted will be the inhabitants of San AndrĂ©s and Providence islands, who have long fished in what now are Nicaraguan waters. Rich in biota, much of these waters were declared the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 2000. The archipelago is over 700 kilometers (437 miles) from the Colombian coast but only 200 kilometers (125 miles) from Nicaragua.

“Colombia strenuously rejects this aspect of the judgment the Court has issued,” President Santos said, referring to the awarding of maritime rights to Nicaragua. “Therefore, we do not rule out any action or mechanism granted to us by international law to defend our rights.”

But Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega emphasized that the ICJ ruling is binding. “To whom will they appeal?” Ortega asked rhetorically at a public rally in Managua. “This is a lack of seriousness for a president of such an important nation as Colombia… The court has given to Nicaragua what belonged to us: thousands of kilometers of natural resources.”

The case had been before the ICJ since December 2001, when Nicaragua filed its claim. Nicaragua and Colombia signed a treaty in 1928 to settle the maritime border and sovereignty of the San AndrĂ©s islands. But in 1980, Nicaragua’s revolutionary Sandinista government unilaterally annulled the agreement, arguing that it had been signed under US pressure. In 2007, the ICJ ruled that the treaty was valid and that the sovereignty of three islands—San Andres, Providencia and Santa Catalina—remained with Colombia. But the new ruling may have more far-reaching implications if hopes for a bonanza in offshore hydrocarbons are realized in the years to come. (Colprensa, RCN Radio, Bogotá, Nov. 25; Reuters, Nov. 20; BBC News, AP, Nov. 19)

However, none of the national governments have paid much heed to the rights of the region’s indigenous peoples—principally, the Miskito, Rama and Garifuna—where control of natural resources is concerned. Last month, following reports that Honduras is preparing to sign a contract with British Gas to explore for hydrocarbons in its exclusive economic zone off the Miskito Coast, the country’s GarĂ­funa alliance, the Honduran Black Fraternal Organization (OFRANEH), issued a statement saying: “We demand that ILO Convention 169 and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) be put into practice and respected.” The International Labor Ogranization’s Convention 169 and the UNDRIP are the two most significant international standards on the territorial rights of indigenous peoples. Honduras is also said to be in talks over offshore exploration with Chevron, Pemex, Petrobras and PDVSA. (OFRANEH, Oct. 29 via

The ICJ is still considering another case brought by Nicaragua last December challenging Costa Rica’s claim to the RĂ­o San Juan, which forms the border between the two countries. Nicaragua is developing a new airport and other facilities at San Juan, the long-sleepy port where the river meets the Caribbean, in what observers see as moves to revive plans for an inter-oceanic canal through the San Juan Basin. (Miami Herald, Nov. 22; Tico Times, Costa Rica, Feb. 23)