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075- Case concerning the Land, Island and Maritime Frontier Dispute (El Savador vs Honduras) 

On December 11th, 1986, El Salvador and Honduras notified the International Court of Justice (ICJ) of a special agreement under which the Parties requested it to establish a Chamber in order to “1) delimit the frontier line in the six sectors not delimited by the 1980 General Treaty of Peace concluded between the two States in 1980 and (2) determine the legal situation of the islands in the Gulf of Fonseca and the maritime spaces within and outside it”. That Chamber was constituted by an Order of May 8th, 1987.

Order of 08-05-1987.pdf

A few months later, Nicaragua wished to intervene in the proceedings on the grounds that the decision could have an impact on its rights in the Gulf of Fonseca. The Court, in its Order of February 28th, 1990, referred such a decision back to the previously composed Chamber.

Order of 28-02-1990.pdf

In a judgment delivered on September 13th, 1990, the Chamber in charge of the case acknowledged that certain aspects of its decision could have a legal impact on Nicaragua. It therefore accepted that the latter intervened in the proceedings but only within the limits of the points of law which concerned it directly, that is to say, the legal regime of the waters of the Gulf of Fonseca.

Judgment of 13-09-1990.pdf

The Chamber delivered its judgment on the merits of the case on September 11th,1992, examining in turn the land, sea and island boundaries delimiting the territories between the parties.

  1. With regard to the land border: the Chamber noted that both parties recognized the principle of uti possidetis juris (i.e. respect for former colonial administrative boundaries). In particular, the ICJ relied on all the documents previously drawn up by the Spanish Crown or other competent authority to establish the east-west border in respect to the six disputed areas;
  2. With regard to the legal situation of the islands in the Gulf: the Chamber considered that only 3 islands (El Tigre, Meanguera and Meanguerita) were the subject of disputes:
    • El Tigre: it was constant practice that Honduras had occupied El Tigre, without apparent dispute, since 1849. The Chamber concluded that both Parties had implicitly accepted Honduras’ sovereignty over El Tigre.
    • Meanguera: After noting that El Salvador had claimed Meanguera in 1854 and had continually intensified its presence on the island, the Chamber considered Honduras’ challenge in 1991. However, it ruled that at that time it was too late to change the presumption of Meanguera’s belonging to El Salvador.
    • Meanguerita: The Chamber considered that Meanguerita was a “dependency” of Meanguera and as such therefore belonged to El Salvador.
  3. With regard to maritime spaces in the Gulf: after examining the documents provided, the Chamber concluded that it did not have jurisdiction to make a delimitation, either inside or outside the Gulf.  As for the legal situation of the waters of the Gulf, the Chamber noted that, given its characteristics, the Gulf was generally acknowledged to be a historic bay possessing the characteristics of a close sea. The ICJ considered that the waters of the Gulf, apart from a 3-mile maritime belt, were historic waters and were subject to the joint sovereignty of the three riparian States. It noted that there had been no attempt to divide the waters according to the principle of uti possidetis juris.
  4. With regard to maritime areas outside the Gulf: the three common states were entitled, outside the closing line, to a territorial sea, a continental shelf and an exclusive economic zone, but had to make a division by mutual agreement.

Finally, the Chamber clarified that the judgment does not have res judicata in respect of Nicaragua.

Judgment of 11-09-1992.pdf

This summary is provided for informational purposes only, does not involve the responsibility of Dome and should in no way be used as a substitute for a careful reading of the judgment and order of the case.