World Court rules for Colombia in round one of Nicaraguan maritime dispute

Ruling in a case brought by Nicaragua, the International Court of Justice found Dec. 13 that three Caribbean islands in the disputed San AndrĂ©s Archipelago belong to Colombia under a 1928 treaty. But the ICJ said the treaty did not determine the status of other islands in the archipelago or the maritime boundary. The archipelago, which is believed to have oil, lies 775 kilometers (480 miles) off Colombia and just 220 kilometers (140 miles) off Nicaragua’s Miskito Coast. In 2003, Nicaragua invited oil companies to explore in the archipelago’s waters—drawing protests from Colombian officials.

The Court partially rejected a Colombian challenge to its jurisdiction in the case. Colombia denied that there was any dispute over which the Court had authority, asserting that the issue was settled by the 1928 Esguerra-Bárcenas treaty, establishing the 82nd meridian (just west of the archipelago) as the maritime boundary.

Nicaragua claimed the treaty, made when the country was occupied the US Marines, was illegitimate—and that its diplomats had been forced to sign in order to aid reconciliation efforts between Washington and Colombia after the dispute over Panama. Nicaragua annulled the treaty in 1980, after the left-nationalist Sandinista regime took power.

Alain Pellet, attorney for Nicaragua in the case, said the treaty “gave them what they already possessed, the Mosquito Coast, in exchange for what [also] belonged to them, the San AndrĂ©s Archipelago.” Pellet invoked the Bogotá Pact of 1948, which designates the World Court as the final authority in disputes between Latin American nations.

The ICJ rejected these arguments. “The court finds that the 1928 treaty between Colombia and Nicaragua settled the matter of sovereignty over the islands of San AndrĂ©s, Providencia and Santa Catalina,” the ruling said, noting that Nicaragua had not contested the treaty for 50 years. “There is no extant legal dispute between the parties on that question. The court thus cannot have jurisdiction over the question.”

Colombian Foreign Minister Fernando Araujo hailed the decision, saying it marked a “fundamental setback” for the Nicaraguan campaign to reclaim the archipelago. “The court acknowledged that Nicaragua was trying to win recognition of rights over a part of Colombian territory in which it has never exercised sovereignty or legal authority,” Araujo told journalists in Bogotá. “We will continue exercising our sovereignty as we have historically,”

Nicaragua brought the case in 2001, two years after bringing case against neighboring Honduras following a new Honduras-Colombia treaty carving up 130,000 square kilometers of the Caribbean. In this treaty, Honduras recognized Colombia’s claim to the San AndrĂ©s islands in return for Colombian recognition of Honduran sovereignty over other waters claimed by Nicaragua. In retaliation, Nicaragua slapped a 35% tariff on imports from Honduras, and went to the World Court.

This October, the Court ruled for Honduras over disputed keys and islands off the Miskito Coast, while also granting some disputed waters to Nicaragua. While the governments of both Honduras and Nicaragua expressed satisfaction with that ruling, the new one in the dispute with Colombia—over the region’s real prize, the San AndrĂ©s islands—is a different story. (AP, Reuters, La Jornada, Mexico, Dec. 13)

Both sides are now preparing arguments on the remaining islands in the archipelago, and the maritime border. In an official statement, the Nicaraguan government expressed hope, saying that the Court’s finding that it has jurisdiction in the maritime border dispute “has put an end to the pretensions of Honduras and Colombia to lock Nicaragua out of the Caribbean Sea.” (EFE, Dec. 13 via Nuevo Diario, Nicaragua)

In a televised address, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe said “Colombia is prepared to defend its legitimate national interests before the Court” and will “continue exercising sovereignty and jurisdiction in the archipelago and corresponding maritime areas.” Armando Zamora, director of Colombia’s National Hydrocarbon Agency (ANH), said his offices are conducting studies to determine whether Bogotá should invite foreign oil investment in the archipelago. (El Tiempo, Bogotá, Dec. 14)

See our last posts on Nicaragua, Central America and Colombia.