After a week of dithering, chest-thumping, and hot-blooded tweeting, Colombia is apparently ready to talk to Nicaragua about the World Court’s historic redrawing of maritime boundaries in the Caribbean Sea.
Since the International Court of Justice (ICJ) handed down its verdict on Nov. 19, granting Nicaragua some 100,000 square kilometers of disputed maritime territory, Colombia’s response has been higgledy-piggledy and highly emotional. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ first reaction was to dismiss the whole second half of the verdict as unacceptable to his country. Hours later, Colombia’s Foreign Minister María Angela Holguín took a more diplomatic approach by calling for dialogue and understanding with Nicaragua. The following day, the Colombian government apparently flip-flopped again by saying it would maintain its warships in Nicaraguan waters to defend its historic claim to the sea. On Saturday, Colombia again called for talks with Nicaragua, though it’s not clear what the South American nation hopes to negotiate on the margin of the ICJ with their “gunboat dialogue.”
Nicaragua, meanwhile, has remained patient. The Sandinistas’ historic position on sovereignty, famously stated by Gen. Augusto Sandino (“sovereignty is not discussed, it’s defended with guns in hand”), seems quaint in this circumstance, given the enormous disparity in firepower between the two nations. Still, Nicaragua has made it clear that there isn’t much to talk about at this point.
“I am certain that…Colombia will recognize the ruling by the International Court of Justice, because there is no other way forward; there is only one path and that’s to comply with the ruling and respect Nicaragua’s historic right,” said Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega in a speech Friday night.
Nicaragua’s call for rule of law stands in contradiction to Colombia’s petulant rogue-nation behavior as it threatens to defy the will of the World Court. Other countries in the region can only watch the situation with quiet wonderment, waiting to see if reason and international law will prevail over nationalism and military might.
Colombia’s substantial loss of maritime territory seems to have triggered an identity crisis in the powerful South American nation. Some Colombians have gone so far as to suggest that losing their claim to the Caribbean waters was worse than losing Panama in 1903. As mainland Colombians vent nationalistic determination, the islanders of San Andres, Providencia and Santa Catalina fret over the future management of natural resources.
The Colombian government, stuck in a no-win situation amid conflicting domestic and international interests, has reacted in a ham-fisted manner; it’s still not clear whether Colombia intends to uphold the ICJ ruling a week after it was handed down.
Political analysts think Colombia will eventually settle down and come to its senses before making any final policy decisions.
“Colombia is too sophisticated to continue behaving like Cantinflas,” says Nicaragua’s Arturo Cruz, a former ambassador and political science professor at INCAE. “Colombia will eventually realize that they would lose a lot more by defying the International Court of Justice than they will by ceding part of the Caribbean Sea.”
If Colombia’s final decision is to thumb its nose at The Hague and international law, it would set a very worrisome precedent, Cruz says. That’s probably why other Latin American countries—many of which have their own cases before the International Court of Justice—are watching Colombia very carefully right now and reserving comment until their temper tantrum is over.
Noise from Colombia’s political peanut gallery has done little to assuage the country’s patriotic distress. Former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who as president four years ago promised President Ortega that his country would uphold whatever ruling the ICJ handed down, today—free from the responsibilities of office—says President Santos should reject the ruling.
To argue his case for defying the ICJ, Uribe has been tweeting prolifically about other cases in history that he claims establishes a precedent for rebellion against the Court: France in 1973, Island in 1974, Argentina in 1977, the U.S. in 1984, Romania in 1989, Malaysia in 1989 and Nigeria in 2002.
“Court rulings that violate a country’s sovereignty are rejected,” Uribe tweeted on Friday.
Dispute moves from legal to political
“Colombia got blindsided by this ruling and right now they are venting their spleen to get the venom out and come to grips with it,” says Nicaragua’s ex-Foreign Minister Francisco Aguirre, who presented Nicaragua’s case against Colombia before the ICJ in 2001.
Aguirre says he too thinks Colombia will eventually “regain its senses and act like an adult nation,” but insists Nicaragua needs to be prepared for the possibility that the South American nation will buck the ICJ entirely and use its military muscle to assert its historic claim to the Caribbean waters. In the event of Colombia’s defiance, Aguirre says, Nicaragua would need to launch an aggressive diplomatic offensive in international forums such as SICA, the UN and OAS.
If that happens, Nicaragua could expect immediate pushback from Costa Rica, which claims Nicaragua is also violating the will of the ICJ by maintaining brigades of Sandinista Youth to occupy a disputed border region along the Río San Juan. Costa Rica’s Foreign Minister Enrique Castillo says Nicaragua’s continued presence on Harbour Head island “constitutes a brazen lack of compliance with the International Court of Justice’s provisional measures” handed down March 8, 2011.
As the maritime dispute becomes political, Nicaragua’s allies—namely the leftist countries of ALBA—will have to overcome their sudden shyness and speak up in defense of their besieged comrade. So far, the only country to come out in open support of the ICJ verdict is ALBA-defector Honduras, which said it would uphold the ruling after determining that it would not affect its maritime borders.
A deadline for fussing?
In Washington, the expectation is that Colombia will eventually calm down and do the right thing by adhering to international law, according to Latin American analysts.
The deadline for Colombia’s temper tantrum could be as early as today, when a high-ranking U.S. delegation arrives in Bogotá for a round of bilateral meetings with the Santos administration to discuss issues related to free-trade and security cooperation.
Though the meeting was not scheduled to coincide with the World Court ruling, the timing is such that it could encourage Colombia to cool it on the chest-thumping and focus on the task of tending to U.S. relations, says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue.
“Colombia will want to be under reasonable control and lower the temperature by the time the U.S. delegation gets there,” Shifter says. “They won’t want to be too distracted or wound up over the ICJ ruling.”