Somalia Delivers Closing Arguments in Maritime Border Dispute

Kenya pulled out of the case at the last minute, accusing the U.N.’s highest court of bias.

The Peace Palace, which houses the International Court of Justice, is seen in The Hague, Netherlands, last year. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — Somalia asked the United Nations’ top court to toss out Kenya’s request for a latitudinal maritime border stretching into the Indian Ocean in a decades-old legal dispute between the two East African nations. 

Kenya abruptly pulled out of the proceedings, days before they were set to start on Monday, claiming the International Court of Justice was biased for refusing to grant a fourth request to delay the hearings.

Somali, which brought the case to The Hague-based ICJ, pushed on, arguing that Nairobi’s request for control over a 40,000-square-mile expanse of oil and gas-rich ocean was unfair and out of step with maritime norms. 

“Might cannot be allowed to substitute for legal right,” attorney Lawrence H. Martin argued on behalf of Somalia, appearing virtually. His client is dwarfed in both population and gross domestic product by its southern neighbor. 

Hearings opened on Monday and continued as planned on Tuesday. Kenya was scheduled to give its presentation on Thursday and Friday, with both parties offering closing statements next week.

Instead, Mohamed Omar Ibrahim, senior adviser to the president of Somalia, gave his country’s closing remarks Thursday.

“We are in your trusted hands. We have a lot at stake in these proceedings. But we will await your decision with equanimity because we have every confidence that your fairness and your wisdom will lead you to a judgment that’s equitable,” Ibrahim told the ICJ judges.  

Somalia brought the dispute to the U.N.’s top court in 2014 after diplomatic discussions failed. It argues its maritime border should continue in the same direction as its land border, but Kenya contends the border should run in a straight line latitudinally. 

Nairobi asked the court twice in 2019 to postpone arguments in the case so it could replace its legal team. Then it requested another delay in 2020 due to the Covid-19 crisis and asked for the current set of hearings to also be delayed because of the pandemic. When that was denied, Kenya withdrew. 

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.

Somalia’s government delegation appeared in person in the Great Hall of Justice in The Hague, though its legal team mostly appeared virtually. 

Somalia argued that the court should apply the so-called three-stage method when making its decision, the standard for maritime border disputes. The process involves first drafting a line that takes into account geographic features and is geometrically objective, then shifting the line to achieve an “equitable result” before verifying it. 

“My job is an uncommonly, uncomplicated one,” Martin said at the outset of his presentation. According to Somalia, there are no geographical markers, making a continuation of the country’s land border the simplest solution. 

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

A final decision in the case could take years after appeals are filed. 

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