World Court rules on Nicaragua-Honduras border dispute; oil conflict in background

The UN International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague, Netherlands, Oct. 8 awarded Honduras sovereignty over four cays in the Caribbean Sea and delineated its maritime boundary with Nicaragua as part of a ruling on a longstanding border dispute. The 17-member court ruled unanimously that Honduras has sovereignty over Bobel Cay, Savanna Cay, Port Royal Cay and South Cay. The ICJ also ruled by majority on the starting point and outline of the maritime boundary. The ruling set the starting point three nautical miles out to sea from the point identified by a 1962 commission as the end of the land boundary in the mouth of the Rio Coco. Shifting deposits left by the Rio Coco makes the exact site of the river mouth uncertain, the ICJ found, instructing Nicaragua and Honduras to open negotiations on the line between the endpoint of the land boundary and the start of the maritime boundary three miles out. At issue are fishing rights, and potential oil resources. (UN News Centre, Oct. 8)

Honduran President Manuel Zelaya welcomed the decision. “The importance of our borders is vital as is Honduras’ relations with its neighbors,” Zelaya said in a televised address from Tegucigalpa. “No one will break the unity of Central America again.” He then headed to the Nicaraguan border, to meet Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega at the the border town of Las Manos. “There we will hug each other like brothers so we can celebrate the court’s ruling,” he said.

Nicaragua’s ambassador to the Netherlands agreed the decision was a landmark for the Central American region. “This problem between our two countries is finished,” said Carlos Arguello. “There is no more reason to be raising nationalism or anything between our two countries.”

Both countries found favorable elements in the judgment: Honduras got the islands, while Nicaragua won greater sovereignty over Caribbean waters. The ruling demarcated a line roughly midway between the two countries’ rival claims. Honduras said the boundary should be drawn along the 15th parallel while Nicaragua wanted it to run northeast from the coast. The new line deviates to the south where it is disrupted by the territorial waters of the islands awarded to Honduras.

Nicaragua filed the case in 1999, claiming the right to “explore and exploit” natural resources within a zone 200 miles from its coast. Honduras claimed that a 1906 ruling by the Spanish crown set a boundary projecting eastward along the 15th parallel from the mouth of the Rio Coco. But the court rejected that argument. “The 1906 award does not deal with the maritime delimitation and it does not confirm a maritime boundary,” said the court’s president, Rosalyn Higgins. Instead, the judges agreed with Nicaragua’s claim that there had never been a demarcated maritime border.

Nicaragua based its claim for a line heading northeast on the shape of the coast around the Rio Coco, and charged that Honduras only dredged up the 1906 ruling when relations between the two countries soured during the 1979-90 Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. (AP, Oct. 8)

A page on the dispute that led to the 1962 commission from MIT’s Cascon System for Analyzing International Conflict notes that the conflict nearly led to war at the time. The crisis was sparked in 1957, when Honduras created a new department, Gracias a Dios, in the border region which Nicaragua claimed—having reneged in 1912 on its acceptance of the Spanish decision of 1906. In April 1957, 50 Nicaraguan national guardsmen occupied Mocoron in the area claimed by both sides. Honduras recalled its ambassador and protested to the OAS. In May, Honduran planes reportedly bombed Mocoron, and Nicaraguan forces reportedly attacked Cifuentes, also in the disputed zone. The OAS quickly brokered a cease-fire pending an investigation. The case went to the ICJ, which in 1960 upheld the 1906 award. An OAS commission subsequently demarcated the new border.

The philately website Dan’s Topical Stamps displays a Honduran postage stamp issued to mark the ICJ judgment, featuring a portrait of Spain’s King Alfonso XIII against a map of the border he ratified.

The American University’s Inventory of Conflict and Environment (ICE) project notes the critical role of Colombia in the conflict (not mentioned in the current news accounts). In 1986—at the height of the Sandinista-era tensions—Honduras and Colombia signed the Caribbean Sea Maritime Limits Treaty, which divided up 12,000 square miles of sea. When Honduras finally ratified the treaty in November 1999, tensions with Nicaragua were renewed.

As we noted in our May special report, “The Return of Plan Puebla-Panama: The New Struggle for the Isthmus,” Colombia agreed to recognize the 15th parallel as the Honduras-Nicaragua sea boundary—in a fairly open bid to win Honduran support for Colombia’s claim to the region’s real prize, the San AndrĂ©s Islands, which are far closer to Nicaragua than Colombia and are believed to have oil. Nicaragua has invited in industry minnows to explore, but Colombia has threatened war if explorations commence.

The Los Angeles Times noted Sept. 17 that the ICJ case brought by Nicaragua over the San Andrés Islands in 1999 is still pending. Colombia bases its claim on an 1803 Spanish assignment of the islands to the jurisdiction of its Nuevo Granada colony, which included modern-day Colombia. A 1928 treaty with Nicaragua recognized that claim—but Nicaragua now claims the treaty is illegitimate, as the country was occupied by the US Marines at the time. While sabre-rattling at Nicaragua, Colombia has conducted its own preliminary drilling in the disputed zone. These tests indicated that significant oil and gas reserves may lie beneath the ocean floor, said Francisco Avella, a geography professor at National University of Colombia.

This July, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe chose San AndrĂ©s as the place to observe Colombia’s independence day, leading a march through the island’s main town—a move viewed by Nicaragua as a provocation. At a subsequent meeting of Central American leaders that Uribe attended, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said in so many words that Uribe was not welcome.

The new ICJ decision may be good news for Nicaragua, even though it loses territory; the ruling may have the effect of weakening Honduras’ emerging strategic alliance with Colombia, and consolidating Central American support for Nicaraguan sovereignty over the San AndrĂ©s archipelago.

See our last posts on Nicaragua, Honduras and the struggle in Central America.