Calming Colombia and Nicaragua’s Murky Waters

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Disputed-maritime-border between Nicaragua and Colombia. Image by Tim Rogers/ Nicaragua Dispatch.

After being on the backburner for over three decades, The Hague is finally ruling on a spat between Colombia and Nicaragua over a set of islands that includes San Andrés, Providencia, and Santa Catalina in the Caribbean Sea. While Nicaragua will argue that the border between the states should be located between its coast and Colombia’s—and not be defined by the 82nd meridian—there is little chance that Nicaragua will succesfully claim sovereignty over the entire archipelago, and the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) decision by the end of 2012 will set an important precedent for maritime disputes across Latin America.

Aside from deciding where the new border will be, the real focus of the dispute will center on the inhabitants of the islands, who have chosen for over a century to be part of Colombia. A clear ruling would not only settle the difference between these two countries, but also help encourage long-overdue development and security. This will hopefully allow the islands to enjoy the wealth of the region’s untapped natural resources. It should also act as an important model for other such border disputes when two countries can’t reach a mutual agreement, something ICJ encourages before filing claims at the higher court.

The roots of the conflict date back two centuries. In the early 1800s, Spain’s vice-royalty of New Granada staked claim to Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama, the eastern coast of Nicaragua, and the disputed islands. But in 1928, Nicaragua signed the Esguerra-Bárcenas Meneses Treaty, solving a long-standing conflict dispute between the former states of New Grenada (current-day Colombia) and the United Provinces of Central America, or UPCA (briefly composed of what is now known as Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and other Central American nations). Although UPCA did not recognize the island’s occupation by Nueva Granada in the 1800s, by the early 1900s, the new Republic of Colombia established a local administration called intendencia on the islands, on the basis of the inhabitants’ decision to join Colombia after the viceroyalty’s break-up. The Esguerra-Bárcenas Meneses Treaty cemented the understanding, and for almost a hundred years, the islands have been under Colombian control.

Despite the Esguerra-Bárcenas Meneses treaty that ensured Colombia’s sovereignty over the archipelago, Nicaragua filed claims in 2001 at The Hague for over 50,000 square kilometers of the island chain including San Andrés, Providencia, Santa Catalina, and the Quitasueño Cay. Furthermore, Nicaragua requested that the border be established equidistant between the coasts of the two countries and not based on the continental platform under the archipelago, something Colombia considers a ludicrous request. Colombia prepared its legal defense by reaffirming its possession over the territory, citing prior agreements and the intendencia administration. In its preliminary decision, the ICJ conceded Colombia’s power over the archipelago but agreed with Nicaragua that the 82nd meridian delimitation would need to be revisited at the end of this year. The ICJ will determine whether the Quitasueño Cay lies on Colombia’s continental platform, a common geographical determinate of maritime boundaries. Nicaragua hopes that Quitasueño Cay will be part of its territory, although a final ruling has not been made.

The dispute has generated media frenzy in both countries, with each side proclaiming victory. Though the ICJ hasn’t ruled on the case, the Nicaraguan press considers moving the border from the 82nd meridian—which will grant the country more maritime space—guaranteed by the Court. Meanwhile, Colombian newspapers claim that the oceanic islands fall under their jurisdiction.

The Colombia-Nicaragua dispute presents a complex scenario in the modern interpretation of International law, which helps explain why the decision has taken so long. Terms like “continental platform” were practically nonexistent at the time of the Esguerra-Bárcenas Meneses Treaty of 1928. Although ICJ has already ruled that a greater share of the archipelago falls under Colombia’s territory, the boundary will be determined by where the continental platform lies—trumping de facto rules—while offering a seemingly equitable share for each of the disputed parties. For Colombia, the archipelago is economically important, as it represents one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations and, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, likely holds oil under the oceanic mantle. That’s why Colombia smartly re-affirmed its control of the islands on June 16, when the president announced an aid plan to invest in water, sewage, communications, electricity, agriculture, and transportation on the islands.

ICJ’s ruling on the new Colombian-Nicaraguan maritime boundary may act as a guide for determining similar cases in South America and elsewhere. Take, for example, the Peruvian-Chilean dispute over “Boundary Number 1,“ in which both countries are laying claim to 38,000 square kilometers of maritime territory. The decision in Colombia and Nicaragua can help ICJ determine how maritime boundaries should be handled when two countries can’t reach amicable terms on their own. The dispute also suggests that in the interest of time and money, Latin American governments must find the will and diplomacy to solve similar disputes before filing them with the ICJ.

Most importantly, while Colombia and Nicaragua both claim victory, the countries must abide by the forthcoming ICJ ruling. Once the new boundary is established, both parties must seek future cooperation, particularly on the basis of security, given that the archipelago has become a passageway for drug smuggling into Central and North America. It seems the ICJ will make the right choice, listening to the demands of the inhabitants themselves to remain part of Colombia while at the same time granting Nicaragua some of what it wants—greater ocean rights that will also allow the Central American country to explore natural resources and improve its ailing economy, the second poorest in Latin America. If both sides feel like they’ve won, then the resolution is more likely to be adhered to and more investment is likely—benefiting the people most important to this conflict, the inhabitants.

Robert Valencia is a Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs and is a contributing writer for Global Voices.  This article was originally posted on the World Policy Blog, with ISN partner, World Policy Institute.

For additional reading on this topic please see:
Moving Beyond Easy Wins: Colombia’s Borders
Colombia and its Neighbours – The Tentacles of Instability
El conflicto fronterizo entre Costa Rica y Nicaragua: ¿medioambiente, soberanía, narcotráfico o mero instrumento electoral?

For more information on issues and events that shape our world please visit the ISN’s featured editorial content and Security Watch.

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