Tuesday, February 7, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Fight over Caribbean Sea territory returns to World Court

While Nicaragua and Colombia do not share a land border, their maritime border in the Caribbean Sea has long been a source of friction.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — Nicaragua and Colombia returned to the U.N.’s top court on Monday for the latest round in what has been 20 years of litigation over the location of their maritime boundary. 

The International Court of Justice is hosting the Latin American countries for the 13th time, now hearing arguments about the delimitation of Nicaragua’s continental shelf, a portion of coastal land submerged under shallow water. 

“The parties are requested to limit their arguments to the two questions posed by the court,” Joan Donoghue, who is court president, cautioned the parties at the outset of the hearing. 

Nicaragua’s continental shelf comes within 200 nautical miles (230.2 miles) of the San Andrés and Providencia islands — territories that the court ruled in an earlier decision belonged to Colombia. International law gives a coastal state control of the waters within that distance, and now Nicaragua wants the court to settle the competing claims. 

“The court has to reach an equitable result,” Carlos Argüello Gómez, the Nicaraguan ambassador to the Netherlands and its agent at the court, told the 17-judge panel in his opening statement. 

Going as far back as the 1920s, when countries across the region were declaring independence from Spain, Nicaragua and Colombia have been fighting over the mineral and fish-rich waters of the Caribbean Sea. When Nicaragua first went to court at The Hague in 2001, it accused Bogotá of failing to respect a 1928 treaty governing control of some 30,000 square miles of sea. 

In a 2012 decision, the ICJ gave Colombia control of several strategic islands, including the San Andrés archipelago, but gave the waters around those islands to Nicaragua. In response, Colombia pulled out of the Pact of Bogotá, which underpinned the ruling, and refused to respect the decision. 

Within a year, Managua filed a pair of complaints, calling on the court to compel Colombia to follow the ruling. Earlier this year, the ICJ broadly sided with Nicaragua over the question of sea territory, faulting Colombia for harassing Nicaraguan fishing vessels in the area. 

Among numerous clashes that lawyers for Nicaragua detailed during hearings in 2021, they described a 2015 skirmish wherein the Colombian coast guard broadcast a message to a Nicaraguan ship saying, “The ruling of The Hague is not applicable.” The recording of the announcement was played in court. 

Maritime boundary disputes are often complicated. Shifting boundaries, tangled geography and economic dependence on the sea create challenging questions about where borders lie. “These concerns must be settled on a case-by-case basis,” one of Nicaragua’s lawyers, Vaughan Lowe, told the court. He emphasized that in the event of overlapping entitlements, it was up to the ICJ to decide where to draw the line. 

Monday’s hearings got off to a late start as the court needed to swear in a new judge. Leonardo Caldeira Brant made his declaration in French, filling a seat opened in May after the death of longtime Judge Antônio Cançado Trindade, a fellow Brazilian. 

Proceedings will continue on Tuesday with opening statements from Colombia. 

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.

Loading
Loading...