Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Borders: Central America and International Law

Is intra-regional conflict on the uptick in Central America?

Click here to view a slideshow of Camp Harbor Head.

In Nicaragua, conservationists are denouncing Costa Rica for environmental damage they claim has been caused by a newly constructed national defense border highway. Meanwhile, Costa Rica protests what it calls the “invasion and occupation” of its territory by members of Nicaragua’s Sandinista Youth movement. At the same time, Colombia and Nicaragua are feuding over their maritime borders. In mid-March, Nicaragua even sent a gunboat to the Gulf of Fonseca—a move that was quickly denounced by Honduras for intimidating its fishermen.

To make matters worse, no one seems willing to talk about it. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega routinely skips regional summits of the Central American Integration System (SICA) hosted by Costa Rica, and Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla retaliated by avoiding SICA meetings in Managua. Meanwhile, Colombian warships are patrolling in Caribbean coastal waters claimed by Nicaragua.

Border problems in Central America have existed as long as there have been borders. Many of the disputes are over differing interpretations of nineteenth-century treaties. Nicaragua alone has gone to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on three occasions—Nicaragua v. Honduras (1999), Nicaragua v. Colombia (2001) and Nicaragua v. Costa Rica (2011)—since the 1990s to settle century-old territorial disputes with neighboring Honduras, Colombia and Costa Rica.

Of those three cases, the Nicaragua-Honduras dispute over maritime territory in the Caribbean was the only one that was resolved neatly and amicably—in 2007. Both sides agreed to abide by the court’s ruling, which granted Honduras sovereignty over four small islands in the Caribbean but established clear maritime boundaries in previously disputed seas. The other two cases have recently become more complicated as they move beyond the civilized chambers of litigation and into the messy realms of politics and public opinion.

Nicaragua and Colombia

Nicaragua’s dispute with Colombia was brought to the ICJ in response to Nicaraguan fishermen being harassed by the Colombian navy. Ironically, 12 years later, the situation today is exactly the same, if not worse. An ICJ ruling on November 19, 2012, upheld Colombia’s claim to the archipelago of San Andrés and seven smaller Caribbean cays, but determined that Colombia is not entitled to take all the surrounding ocean and block Nicaragua’s access to the sea. The provisional boundary that Colombia had previously and unilaterally established put the aquatic border at the 82nd meridian, which cut off three-quarters of Nicaragua’s 330-mile (531-kilometer) coastline from projecting 200 nautical miles out to sea, as established by international law.

According to the ICJ, the 82nd meridian is no longer a relevant marker. It awarded Nicaragua nearly 38,600 square miles (100,000 square kilometers) of ocean claimed by Colombia under the 1928 Esguerra-Bárcenas Border Treaty. Under that treaty, Colombia recognized Nicaragua’s claim to the Mosquito Coast, and Nicaragua, under U.S. military occupation at the time, recognized Colombia’s claim to the archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina.

The Sandinista government celebrated the ruling in November, with first lady (and government spokeswoman) Rosario Murillo calling it “the beginning of a new history of recovering Nicaragua’s sovereignty.”

But so far it isn’t working out so well. Facing political pressures from former President Álvaro Uribe and an upsurge of patriotic passions from his fellow Colombians, President Juan Manuel Santos on the day of the ruling said that he “emphatically rejects” the ICJ decision, which had the effect of doubling the Central American country’s exclusive economic zone in the Caribbean Sea. Since the decision is legally binding and cannot be appealed, Colombia has withdrawn from the treaty that recognizes the authority of the International Court of Justice. But that withdrawal is not retroactive, so the decision is still binding.

“Never again will we allow what happened on November 19 with a ruling by the ICJ,” Santos Tweeted to his 1.4 million followers on November 28.

As Americas Quarterly went to press, Colombian warships continued to ply Nicaraguan waters, allegedly to protect Colombian fishermen. Nicaragua, which is outmuscled, can only hope that international law and dialogue prevail over brute force. So far, it’s a problem that Nicaragua must face alone and has done so quietly. Not even Nicaragua’s closest allies in the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA) have offered public support for their besieged comrade.

Nicaragua and Costa Rica

The border tiff between Nicaragua and Costa Rica combines both environmental issues and nationalism. For more than two years, brigades of Sandinista youth have been sent to a postcard-size swath of marshland along the delta of the San Juan River for training in environmental protection (even though the area was never much of a forest) and national defense. The youth are not armed but they are defending the territory by occupying it, and the military is about 1,300 feet (400 meters) down river.

Costa Rica claims the young people are illegally occupying territory granted under the 1858 Cañas-Jerez Treaty, which recognizes that the San Juan River belongs to Nicaragua but that Costa Rica has navigation rights. On Costa Rican maps, it is called Isla Portillos. But Nicaragua, which calls the same land Harbor Head, claims the 2-square-mile (5-square-kilometer) area as its own.

The dispute seemed to have been settled, at least provisionally, by the ICJ in April 2011, when it ordered both countries to withdraw security personnel from the disputed area until the fence line can be clearly demarcated. But that hasn’t stopped Costa Rica from claiming it has been a victim of a foreign invasion. Today, there are no army personnel on the disputed island—just the Sandinista youth—but Nicaragua has a nearby military checkpoint.

“Since the beginning, the entire international community—with the exception of Panama—has turned a blind eye to this, adopting a position of neutrality which doesn’t work because this is a clear violation of the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity that merits a strong international condemnation,” Costa Rican Foreign Minister Enrique Castillo told Americas Quarterly, charging that the international community’s apparent “indifference to and tolerance of Nicaragua’s illegal conduct sets a horrible precedent that weakens international law and order.”

Nicaragua, however, claims that Costa Rica is endangering the region by building what it calls an ill-conceived and poorly constructed border-defense highway that parallels Nicaragua’s San Juan River. The Juan Rafael Mora Porras Highway (Route 1856) was started in 2010 without any environmental impact studies. Plagued by corruption scandals and poor engineering, the 100-mile (160-kilometer) border highway partially washed into Nicaragua’s San Juan River with the first rains of last year.

A recent environmental study by the Humboldt Center and The River Foundation, in collaboration with the Investigative Center for Aquatic Resources at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua (CIRA-UNAN), found that the Costa Rican roadway—which in some areas is only 33 feet (10 meters) from the riverbank—is affecting the natural habitat of some 600 species of animals. Nearly two-thirds of Route 1856 was built in an area that is considered “highly fragile and ecologically delicate, forming one of the principal nodes of biological connectivity in Mesoamerican Biological Corridor,” according to the report.

The roadway is supposed to be completed in 2013 at a cost of more than $72 million.

 What will come next? Colombia’s refusal to accept the ICJ ruling on maritime boundaries in the Caribbean and the failure of court-ordered provisional measures to ease border tensions between Nicaragua and Costa Rica present an increasingly complicated challenge to the authority of international law.

Will something else—either bilateral discussions or ad hoc negotiations brokered by neighboring countries—emerge to replace it?

View a slideshow of Camp Harbor Head.

Click here to view an expanded version of the slideshow.

All photos courtesy of the author.

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.