Maritime Border Dispute Moves Ahead at UN Court Despite Kenya Dropout

Hearings will continue with only representatives from Somalia after Kenya’s request to postpone the case for a fourth time was denied.

A map illustrating the Somalia-Kenya maritime border dispute. (Courthouse News image/Molly Quell)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — Despite Kenya’s last-minute withdrawal, Somalia gave opening statements in a long-standing dispute over its maritime boundary before the United Nations’ highest court Monday. 

Last week, Kenya accused the International Court of Justice of bias for refusing to reschedule hearings for a fourth time in a case over the Indian Ocean maritime border between the two East African countries. 

Boundary disputes are not “a twist or a hip hop which one can dance solo, but a tango dominated by a pas de deux,” Alain Pellet told The Hague-based court on behalf of Somalia, referring to the ballet movement where dancers dance in sync.

The professor of international law at Paris Nanterre University was rebutting Kenya’s argument that Somalia had failed to engage in discussions over the boundary. 

The Peace Palace, home of the International Court of Justice, in The Hague, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File)

Somalia has been experiencing a civil war since the 1980s, during which several regimes have been overthrown by force. The country argued that it had no functioning government and no ability to police its border during much of this time. 

“Rebuilding our house means tending to our disputes with our neighbors,” Somalia’s Deputy Prime Minister Mahdi Mohammed Gulaid told the ICJ judges.  

Some of the Somalia delegation appeared in the Peace Palace’s Hall of Justice in person, while others appeared via video-link due to Covid-19 travel restrictions. 

Kenya had requested the hearings be postponed until the pandemic subsided, claiming that it was unable to effectively make its argument remotely.

“This is a complex case that requires proper presentation. We have maps, documents that need to be illustrated in court. This would not be possible in a virtual hearing,” Kenya’s Solicitor General Ken Ogeto told Bloomberg on Monday. 

The case will continue without Kenya. Under court rules, proceedings can only be stopped if Kenya withdraws from the court entirely, which it has not indicated it will do. The country did participate in 2016 hearings over jurisdiction and the court held in 2017 that it has authority to hear the dispute. 

This week’s hearings had already been postponed from June 2020 because of the pandemic. Kenya had requested two prior postponements in 2019 to replace its legal team.

“We sent a letter to the ICJ stating that the Somali government would never accept a fourth postponement,” Somalia Information Minister Osman Abukar Dube told reporters in the capital city of Mogadishu last week. 

Somalia brought the dispute to the U.N.’s top court in 2014 after diplomatic discussions over the 40,000-square-mile expanse of ocean failed. The area is rich in oil and gas reserves. Somalia says its border should continue in the same direction as its land border, but Kenya contends the border should run latitudinally. 

“The factual picture is clear, consistent, and incontrovertible,” Philippe Sands of Matrix Chambers, arguing on behalf of Somalia, told the court via video link from London. He cited a number of Kenyan maps and several domestic laws that refer to a maritime border that continues from the undisputed land border. 

Relations worsened in 2019 after Somalia allegedly sold oil and gas rights in the disputed territory. Kenya recalled its ambassador to Somalia over the incident, though Nairobi wasn’t the only one who was angry. Somalians gathered outside the International Conference on Somali Oil and Gas in London, chanting, “We don’t have leaders, we have dealers,” angry at what they saw as an illegal sell-off of the country’s natural resources. 

In December, Somalia cut diplomatic ties with its southern neighbor, claiming Kenya was interfering in elections. 

Hearings will continue Tuesday.  

%d bloggers like this: