The Sandinista government is hailing today’s ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) as “the beginning of a new history of recovering Nicaragua’s sovereignty,” said first lady and administration spokeswoman Rosario Murillo.
Murillo thanked the Virgin Mary for her clear hand in the World Court’s decision and said the verdict is further proof that “the victories are growing” for Nicaragua.
Today’s ICJ ruling establishes a legal maritime boundary that effectively doubles Nicaragua’s claim to the Caribbean Sea. Thought Nicaragua lost its historic claim to a small archipelago of seven Caribbean cays —several of which are uninhabitable rocks—it gained substantial maritime territory extending well beyond the Colombian archipelago of San Andres.
The provisional boundary that Colombia had previously established put the aquatic border at the 82nd meridian, which cutoff three-quarters of Nicaragua’s 531-kilometer coastline from projecting 200 nautical miles out to sea, as established by international law. Under the newly established boundary, the 82nd meridian ceases to be a relevant marker as Nicaragua moved the line east, south and north. Colombia, however, will remain in control of a sizable swath of ocean that corresponds to the continental shelf and exclusivity economic zone of the San Andres archipelago and extends east into Colombian waters.
While Nicaragua did not get everything it wanted from today’s World Court decision, it succeeded in its primary object of erasing the provision boundary of the 82nd meridian and establishing sovereign claim to twice as much maritime territory as it had yesterday.
“Colombia got the rocks and we got an exclusive economic zone of maritime territory that extends for tens of thousands of square kilometers,” says ex-Foreign Minister Francisco Aguirre, who presented the original case on behalf of Nicaragua in 2001, during the presidency of Arnoldo Alemán.
Originally, Nicaragua also staked claim to the Caribbean islands of San Andres, Providencia and Santa Catalina, but a provisional ruling by the World Court in 2007 granted Colombia exclusive ownership of that archipelago. Aguirre says Nicaragua never really expected to regain control of those islands, which belonged to Nicaragua from 1838 to 1928. Instead, he says, Nicaragua’s claim to the islands and smaller cays was a tactic to negotiate what the country was really after: expanded and clearly delineated maritime borders.
“The endgame was not to gain sovereignty over a few rocks and stones in the Caribbean; our main objective was to establish clear borders with Colombia that respect our claim to at least 200 nautical miles of ocean,” Aguirre told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “In that sense, we achieved our endgame. And as Shakespeare play says, All’s well that ends well.”
A long time coming
The border dispute between Nicaragua and Colombia existed for nearly a century. The 1928 Esguerra-Bárcenas treaty between the two countries gave Colombia the Archipelago of San Andres, Providencia and Santa Catalina, but did not establish maritime borders. Colombia, meanwhile, used that treaty to encroach on Nicaraguan waters by establishing the 82nd meridian as the provisional limit of Colombian waters—a move that nearly halved Nicaragua’s maritime territory.
Since the revolutionary days of the 1980s, the Sandinista government has claimed that the entire Esguerra-Bárcenas Treaty is invalid because it was signed during a period of U.S. military intervention. Nicaragua, however, ceased its claim to San Andres following the Court’s 2007 ruling, and has since focused on the maritime borders.
Nicaragua also made a half-hearted effort to claim the smaller islets of Albuquerque, Este Sudeste, Roncador, Serrana, Quitasueño, Serranilla and Bajo Sueño, but today’s ruling granted Colombia control of all the islets and Nicaragua—so far—isn’t complaining.
An historic ruling
Nicaragua argued before the ICJ that its maritime entitlements should extend beyond the 200 nautical-mile limit to encompass the entire continental shelf. But in the ICJ proceedings, Nicaragua failed to define the outer margins of the continental shelf, so the Court could not uphold Nicaragua’s claim, according to chief magistrates Peter Tomka.
Instead, Tomka said, the world tribunal focused on delimiting maritime entitlements and exclusive economic zone boundaries within the 200 miles extending from Nicaragua’s coastline.
Within that limit, Nicaragua argued that the Colombia’s maritime territory and entitlements should be restricted to a three-mile enclave surrounding each of its islands, and the rest of the ocean be awarded to Nicaragua.
Colombia, meanwhile, argued that the boundary should remain at the 82nd meridian for reasons of security and defense. Colombia’s provisional maritime boundary at the 82nd meridian effectively blocked three-quarters of Nicaragua’s Caribbean coastline from extending the full 200 miles out to sea.
In the end, the Court opted for an “equitable solution” by divvying up the maritime territory and entitlements in a “reasonable and mutually balanced way,” according to Tomka.
“The provisional median line cut Nicaragua off from three-fourths of the area into which its coast projected; moreover, the effect was produced by a few small islands which are many nautical miles apart. The court considers that those islands should not be counted as continuous mainland coast that extends for more than 100 nautical miles and cuts off Nicaragua from access to the seabed and waters to the east,” Tomka said.
At the same time, the head judge said, the Court did not want to create another problem by shifting the median line in such a way that it blocked Colombia from its maritime entitlements generated from San Andres and the neighboring islands. The ICJ, Tomka said, didn’t want to “remedy one instance of cutoff by creating another.”
The solution, the Court ruled, was to grant Colombia full access to the continental shelf and the exclusive economic zone corresponding to the main archipelago of San Andres, Providencia and Santa Catalina, plus 12-mile enclaves around the smaller islands, which, quite literally will now become islands within Nicaragua’s ocean.
The rest of the previously disputed maritime territory will now fall under Nicaragua’s control.
Is the ruling fair?
Though Nicaragua is celebrating the ruling as a “great victory,” mathematically there is still a discrepancy. According to the ICJ, Nicaragua has eight times more coastline than Colombia in the disputed Caribbean area, but only three times more maritime territory.
But the ICJ’s magistrates determined that the disproportionality of land territory to corresponding ocean is not “gross enough” to be considered an “inequitable result.”
“We are not applying the principle of strict proportionality; maritime delimitation is not designed to produce a correlation between lengths of a party’s related coast and their respective shares of maritime territory,” Tomka said.
What’s important now, ex-foreign minister Aguirre says, is that Nicaragua has finally established clear maritime boundaries and exclusive fishing and oil-exploration rights in an area that was long-disputed.
“Before Colombia was in the driver’s seat, and now we are in the driver’s seat,” Aguirre said.
The presidents of Nicaragua and Colombia are each scheduled to address the ruling separately tonight.