124-Territorial and Maritime Dispute (Nicaragua vs Colombia)
On December 6th, 2001, Nicaragua filed an application instituting proceedings against Colombia before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in order to settle maritime and territorial disputes that have existed between the parties for many years. Colombia filed preliminary objections regarding the jurisdiction of the Court.
In its judgement of December 13th, 2007, the ICJ made a distinction on its jurisdiction between:
- The question of sovereignty over the islands of San Andres, Providencia and Santa Catalina, which had been attributed to Colombia by a Treaty signed by the two parties in 1928. Having no dispute to settle on those territories, the ICJ declared itself incompetent on this point;
- The question of sovereignty over the maritime features other than the aforementioned islands claimed by both parties: after examination, the Court concluded that the Treaty of 1928 had not settled this question and therefore concluded that it had jurisdiction on the matter;
- The question of the maritime delimitation between Nicaragua and Colombia; noting that the 1928 Treaty had failed to settle the question, the Court decided that it had jurisdiction to adjudicate the issue
Both Honduras and Costa Rica have filed applications for permission to intervene, the former as a arty in this case and the latter as a non-party. Indeed, both countries contended that any decision of the Court would have consequences on their respective rights. In two judgments delivered on the same day, the ICJ rejected these requests, finding that in the case of:
- Costa Rica; the State had no interest of a legal nature that would be affected by a decision of the Court insofar as the decision to be rendered could no way threaten the internationally recognised rights of the country;
- Honduras; the State had failed to prove that it had a legal interest likely to be thwarted by the Court’s decision. Therefore, it could not intervene in the proceedings.
The Court ruled on the merits of the case in its judgment of November 19th, 2012, on the issue of:
- The sovereignty over the contested maritime formations. The ICJ first had to determine which territories were affected. Once these were identified, it looked for which country, Nicaragua or Colombia, could claim to exercise its sovereignty by applying the traditional method:
- Firstly, trying to find out if one of the countries held a conventional title in application of the uti possidetis juris, a Latin expression generally translated as ”you will possess what you already possessed”. This refers to the legal principle whereby, upon independence, new States inherit the territories and boundaries of the former colonial provinces. In this case, nothing neither in the documents produced nor in the debates, allowed the ICJ to assert that one or the other parties held such a title;
- Failing to clear that bar, the Court sough ”effectivites”, that is to say acts constituting a manifestation of the authority of a State over a given territory. In the present case, it considered that Colombia had exercised its authority over the disputed territories in a constant, coherent and public manner without any opposition having been expressed by Nicaragua. The ICJ also took into account other elements, all of which pointed towards the same direction and assigned the sovereignty of the islands to Colombia
- The delimitation of the maritime boundary between the two countries: the Court began by searching for the relevant coasts for both States, then applied its usual 3 step-method of delimitation:
- Choice of the base points and construction of a provisional median line between the relevant coasts;
- Consideration of any relevant circumstances which could justify an adjustment or a shifting of the provisional median line so as to achieve an equitable result between the Parties. In this case, the Court had to make some adjustments
- Verification that the changes made, do not given the circumstances of the case, lead to an unfair disproportion, which was not the case here.
This summary of the facts of this case and the proceedings is only proposed for informational purposes, does not engage Dome in any way and cannot replace the careful reading of the judgments and orders of the case.