World Court affirms Costa Rica’s major claim

The International Court of Justice reaffirmed Costa Rica’s sovereignty to land south of the mouth of the Río San Juan in a decision announced today.

The court declined to assess actual damages against Nicaragua, which invaded the land. Instead, it ordered the two countries to negotiate the amount of the damages over the next 12 months. If no decision is reached, the court will consider a new proceeding, said Ronny Abraham, the French justice who is court president, who read the decision in English and French.

The decision also declined to issue an order prohibiting Nicaragua from repeating its invasion.

There is no reason to suppose that any state declared wrongful will repeat its action, and its good faith must be assumed, the court president said, quoting the decision.

Costa Rica also did not prevail on a number of environmental claims. The court said that despite general requirements in certain treaties, Nicaragua was not under any obligation to consult with Costa Rica before starting dredging operations in the river in 2010.

The court easily dismissed Nicaragua’s claim that its efforts to dredge a channel across land that is part of Costa Rica was just an attempt to reopen an old mouth of the river.  Nicaragua’s legal team had argued this. The decision noted that there were large trees in the area that was dredged and a lack of sediment that argued against the prior existence of any channel.

The court also declined to find that the dredging operation had affected the flow of the Río Colorado, which is entirely in Costa Rica. The river, a southern branch of the Río San Juan, is an important waterway in northeastern Costa Rica, and those who use it feared that dredging further west in the river would divert water.

The court decision said that the activities of Nicaragua could not be clearly linked to a reduction of the water, which could have been caused by the lack of rain.

The court based much of its decision on an 1858 treaty and other decisions outlining the border between the two countries.

The court did not seem to be concerned by a breach of its own March 8, 2011, order. 

15 members of the court appeared for the reading of the decision.

15 members of the court appeared for the reading of the decision.

Nicaragua excavated two new channels and set up some military facilities after that date on the disputed property, the decision noted.

Costa Rica asked the court to nullify a 2009 decree by Nicaragua that resulted in the inspection of tourism boats on the river.

The court accepted reports of two cases when navigation on the river by Costa Ricans was interrupted. In February 2013 a farmer and an uncle were detained and subjected to humiliating treatment, and in June 2014 a property owner and members of a local agricultural cooperative were stopped from navigating the river, the court affirmed. These incidents were two of five that were not contested by Nicaragua.

Still the court declined to invalidate the degree although the decision agreed that  the two incidents show that Nicaragua breached Costa Rica’s rights of free navigation.

The case began when Nicaragua invaded the Isla Calero area in 2010 and claimed a small piece of Costa Rica. Because the treaties define the border as the south bank of the Río San Juan, a new channel would have transferred part of Costa Rica to Nicaragua. The channel that since has been filled in would have created a broader and deeper mouth of the river to replace the meandering current mouth that is heavily silted.

This would open up the river to large boats and commercial development.

The slight change in border also would give Nicaragua substantial amounts of potentially oil-rich seabed in the Caribbean.

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