Colombia smarts from the loss of territorial waters
WHEN Nicaragua took Colombia to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague in 2001 over a handful of small islands in the Caribbean, Colombians felt they had little to lose. The islands have been theirs ever since independence in 1822. They remained so after Colombia lost its former province of Panama to a 1903 separatist revolt engineered by the United States. Colombian sovereignty over the islands and their waters was confirmed in a treaty with Nicaragua in 1928. In 1980 Nicaragua’s Sandinista government declared the treaty invalid. But by then, the two countries’ maritime border had long been accepted as the 82nd meridian.
After studying the case for 11 years, the court issued a ruling on November 19th that stunned Colombians. Although it confirmed the country’s sovereignty over seven uninhabited islets near the Colombian islands of San Andrés and Providencia, it granted Nicaragua an exclusive economic zone extending 200 nautical miles (370km) from its coast. It drew a new maritime boundary sharing out the waters claimed by both countries (see map). By Colombia’s calculations, this transfers to Nicaragua about 30,000 square miles (75,000 square km) of sea, with valuable fishing rights and, perhaps, oil. Two islets are now cut off from the others. The fishermen of the islands of San Andrés and Providencia now fear for their livelihoods.
Nicaragua celebrated by dispatching ships to patrol its new waters. “By now [the navy has] established sovereignty in that whole territory,” said Daniel Ortega, its president. Colombia responded by withdrawing from the Pact of Bogotá, an agreement signed in its capital in 1948, under which the countries of the Americas agreed to use the ICJ to settle boundary disputes. “Never again should we have to face what happened to us on November 19th,” said Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s president. He refused to withdraw his navy, and said the ICJ ruling was filled with “omissions, mistakes, excesses [and] inconsistencies that we cannot accept.” He argued that territorial and maritime borders should be established in the future through treaties, rather than by the court.
Colombian diplomats mutter darkly that Nicaragua nobbled the ICJ. That is highly unlikely. On the main points, the court’s ruling was unanimous—a rarity. The judges offered an “equitable solution” to the overlapping claims to a 200-mile continental shelf. And contrary to what Colombian officials say, the court left no scope whatsoever for Nicaragua to come back with further maritime claims.
Mr Santos’s decision to pull out of the Bogotá pact looked at odds with his country’s long tradition of respect for international law. It seems to have been inspired by politics rather than jurisprudence. Mr Santos was already under fire from his predecessor, Álvaro Uribe, who portrays as weakness the president’s statesmanlike decision to hold peace talks with the FARC guerrillas. In polls taken after the ICJ ruling, Mr Santos’s approval rating was down to 45%, from 60% in September. But if anyone is to blame for the maritime reverse it is the presidents of the 1990s who failed to see the Nicaraguan claim coming.
Colombia is still obliged to respect the court’s ruling, which cannot be appealed. At first Mr Santos said he would “not apply” it until the rights of Colombians were assured. But on December 1st he met Mr Ortega in Mexico City. The two men agreed to keep in touch, and discounted military action. “Rest assured that we will recognise your historic rights,” said Mr Ortega, seeming to suggest that Nicaragua would allow Colombian fishermen to reach the two detached islets.
The ramifications of the ruling are being closely watched elsewhere in Latin America. On December 3rd the ICJ began hearing oral arguments on a claim by Peru to a 38,000 square-km triangle of the Pacific, rich in fish, and long controlled by Chile. Peru says the maritime boundary between the two countries was never defined. Chilean officials are resigned to a Solomonic judgment from the ICJ, whose ruling is expected in mid-2013. In Peru that would look like victory, and might allow the country at last to get over its bitterness at the loss of two provinces to Chile in a war of 1879-83. In a continent where nationalism is rife, there is still much to be said for accepting the ICJ as a referee.