Most Costa Ricans were thrilled that the International Court of Justice reaffirmed the country’s sovereignty over the Isla Calero.
The authoritative Spanish-language daily newspaper La Nación headlined Victory even as the full decision was being read in The Hague, Netherlands. A similar headline showed up on an editorial later in the day Wednesday.
story on decision
However, a close reading of the 229-section decision shows that Costa Rica only won what was obvious. Nicaragua did invade Costa Rican territory in 2010, and the nation’s leadership did so with full knowledge that the land involved was Costa Rica.
Dredger-in-chief Edén Pastora, the former Contra leader, even was caught on the radio affirming that the land was Costa Rica. As a Costa Rican lawyer said in a letter to the editor in 2011:
“The treaties of 1858, the Cleveland treaty, the Alexander treaty, maps published by both countries clearly define the borders of both countries. It also has been of public knowledge that the island of Calero belongs to Costa Rica. There is no space for interpretation or opinion about what belongs to Costa Rica and where the limits are located.”
What the 15 World Court justices failed to do was assess any punishment on Nicaragua for the military invasion. The court did order reparations for unspecified material damages, but that means the value of trees cut and the expenses in filling in the canals the Nicaraguan workers dug.
What was not assessed were any other kind of costs including the very expensive legal efforts by Costa Rica, and perhaps the cost of mustering hundreds of heavily armed police officers to the border and keeping them there.
The court said that the two countries should spend a year negotiating the damages. Only then and with a new proceeding will the court step in.
The court said that Nicaragua was likely to act in good faith in the future. Yet from the decision it is clear that Nicaragua’s lawyers told some tall tales during the four-year litigation process.
For example, Nicaragua’s lawyers argued that the canal that workers dug across Costa Rican land was really a former mouth of the Río San Juan. The court rejected that claim because there were large trees in the path of the canal and no indication of previous sediment.
The purpose of the canal was to change the mouth of the river to cut off Costa Rican land and make it Nicaraguan. The south bank of the river is the national border. This was a bold land grab.
The court did find that Costa Ricans have rights of navigation on the Río San Juan, but it also did not void a 2009 Nicaraguan decree that is being used to assess fees on tourists.
Costa Rican officials seem prepared to celebrate the decision and seek renewed relations with Daniel Ortega’s government. And maybe this was the point of the court’s seemingly wishy-washy decision.
Even La Nación said in its editorial Wednesday that on the border Costa Ricans and Nicaraguans live, trade and establish familial ties together. There is ample space for fruitful cooperation between the two nations, it added.