ICJ Decision on Colombia-Nicaragua Dispute Settles Little

Photo: Patricia Iriarte Diaz Granados "orianauta" | Flickr | Creative Commons

Photo: Patricia Iriarte Diaz Granados “orianauta” | Flickr | Creative Commons

The decision announced last month by the International Court of Justice on a three-decade maritime dispute between Nicaragua and Colombia has pleased Managua and angered Colombia.  The court confirmed Colombia’s sovereignty over seven islets known as San Andrés and Providencia, but it extended Nicaragua’s sovereignty over 200 nautical miles.  The ruling means that, although Colombian jurisdiction includes a 12-mile radius around the islands, Nicaragua will control a much bigger area of the Caribbean – and greater access to fishing grounds and potential underwater oil deposits.

Colombia has rejected the ICJ verdict; refused to withdraw its navy from the contested waters; and withdrawn from the Pact of Bogotá, which recognizes ICJ jurisdiction.  Foreign Minister Holguín said Colombia wants to protect itself from future challenges to Colombian territory.  This position has implications for its neighbors.  Colombia’s withdrawal leaves a pending case brought against it by Ecuador regarding harm caused by herbicides from aerial fumigation near its border.  It also shifts back into bilateral renegotiations Colombia’s dispute with Venezuela over the Gulf of Venezuela, which Colombia had often proposed taking to the ICJ.  According to press reports, Panama, Costa Rica, and Honduras did not see themselves affected by the ICJ decision.

While ICJ decisions are final and cannot be appealed, the Court lacks the means to enforce them.  Colombia’s rejection of the ruling suggests it will take advantage of that, setting itself and Nicaragua on a collision course that will undoubtedly raise tensions in the region.  (Non-enforcement is an old problem.  The United States got the UN Security Council to support it in rejecting an ICJ decision in the 1980s that Nicaragua was entitled to reparations for U.S. support of the Contras.)  Even if the countries don’t come to blows, the dispute puts regional cooperation in crucial areas, such as counternarcotics, at risk.  It also raises questions about the willingness of countries to work with multilateral institutions.  The ALBA countries support ICJ jurisdiction now, but Colombia’s position probably will embolden them to reject it if inconvenient in the future.  Maritime disputes appear to be increasing worldwide, and Central America promises to be no different.

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