Nicaragua and Colombia Dispute Continues over Caribbean Territory


Nicaragua’s most famous revolutionary, Augusto Sandino, said that “sovereignty is not discussed, it’s defended with guns in hand.” This was also once the view of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN), the left-wing political party currently in charge of the country; but discussion is exactly what Nicaragua is seeking to settle a current dispute with Colombia.

The ruling at the ICJ (UN photos)

A ruling last month by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) – which resides in The Hague, Netherlands – granted Nicaragua almost 100,000 square kilometres of maritime territory in Caribbean waters that were previously under the control of Colombia.

The dispute has been a long time in the making. Back in 2001, the Nicaraguan government brought the case to the ICJ, alleging that shipping vessels from their country were being harassed by the Colombian navy in a part of the Caribbean claimed by both countries.

In 1928 the ‘Esguerra-Bárcenas Treaty’ gave Colombia the Archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina; however Nicaragua argues that it did not establish maritime borders. According to the Central American nation, since that date Colombia has been intruding more and more on Nicaraguan waters and has almost halved its territory.

The Sandinistas of Nicaragua have argued for the past three decades that the entire treaty should be void because it was signed when the country was under military intervention and pen was put to paper due to of US pressure.

In 2007 the ICJ preliminarily ruled that the archipelago was Colombian territory, which quieted the calls for the Treaty to be void; however the ruling did not resolve the dispute over maritime borders.

That decision came last month, on 19th November, when the Court voted in favour of Nicaragua.

The response from Colombia was dismissive and aggressive. President Juan Manuel Santos stated: “Colombia emphatically rejects the ruling by the Court”.

Comments from Nicaragua on the ruling were celebratory. During a parade to commemorate the decision attended by leading political figures and leaders from the last two decades, President Daniel Ortega thanked the ICJ and put pressure on the Colombian government to accept the new maritime boundaries.

“I am certain that Colombia will recognise the ruling by the International Court of Justice, because there is no other way forward; there is only one path and that’s to comply with the ruling and respect Nicaragua’s historic right,” he said.

But direct dialogue between the two leaders was not forthcoming until 1st December, when both met for a 20-minute meeting during the inauguration of the new Mexican president.

Ortega commented after the meeting: “The two parties are totally discarding the use of force.”

He went on to give further assurances of peace, stating that Nicaraguan and Columbian vessels were in “permanent communication” and that his government would continue to respect the established fishing rights of those living on the Colombian archipelago, including the rights of the indigenous islanders.

His Colombian counterpart was also quick to dismiss the possibility of violence. “No one wants bellicose actions”, Santos said. But warned that he would continue to “defend, with total conviction, the rights of the islanders and all our compatriots.”

The boundaries in question (UN photos)

Could Shots be Fired?

Whilst there is the possibility for military conflict, especially as some Colombian navy vessels have failed to leave Nicaragua’s new territory; it appears that many of the comments from the Colombian government are nothing more than knee-jerk reactions and nationalistic rhetoric. But if violence did break out, it would not be an even fight.

According to an article that appeared in the Nicaraguan daily La Prensa, Nicaragua has a defence budget of US$67 million, as compared to the US$14 billion Colombia spends annually. Furthermore, the South American nation has a navy of 34,964 personnel; Nicaragua has just 800.

Or to put it another way; Colombia’s annual defence expenditure is greater than Nicaragua’s whole GDP.

Indeed, this disparity led one Colombian columnist for El Tiempo to write: “If Colombia doesn’t want to remove its warships from the zone, Nicaragua will not be able to force them out.”

But days after the ICJ ruling was made, the Nicaraguan National Assembly passed a motion to allow the armed forces of the United States, Russia, and Cuba to enter their new maritime territory for six months in order to participate in joint activities against drug trafficking.

Furthermore, reactions from the US were acquiescent, a positive sign for Nicaragua since Colombia is a key ally of the US in Latin America. Phyllis Powers, the US Ambassador to Nicaragua, said, “Really, this is an issue between Nicaragua and Colombia and my government is confident that they will resolve it between them.”

Meanwhile, senior White House national security advisor for the Western Hemisphere, Ricardo Zuñiga, echoed the view of Powers: “The ruling and the dispute are bilateral issues between Colombia and Nicaragua on which we do not take a position.”

Pan-American Pains

Even if violence does not break out, the dispute will still have rattled Latin America.

In response to the ruling by the ICJ, Colombia’s president announced that his country is pulling out of the Bogotá Pact, which was signed by most American nations in 1948 with the intention of settling disputes peacefully by bringing cases to international institutions (such as placing jurisdiction within the ICJ).

According to Santos, “The borders between nations cannot be in the hands of a court of law. They must be drawn by agreement between the countries involved.”

However, Secretary General of the Organisation of American States (OAS), Jose Miguel Insulza, views the decision to leave the Pact as troubling for the Pan-American system. “What I have always tried to achieve is that the great part of the Latin American and Caribbean nations and also those of North America subscribe to and ratify the treaties of the OAS, and for that reason an exit is always prejudicial; certainly there is always damage,” he said.

Indeed, several Latin American countries have come out and expressed their disapproval of Colombia’s response. The presidents of both Peru and Chile have been vocal in the stance that the ICJ’s ruling must be followed.

This dispute could have a further destabilising effect on the region since many Latin American nations have their own cases currently being presided over by the ICJ. Should other countries leave the Bogotá Pact if the court rules against them, then this could greatly endanger future conflict resolution mechanisms.

A Pyrrhic Victory?

But this dispute is not just about sovereignty and nationalistic chest-beating.

Providence Island in the San Andrés Archipelago (photo by Luis Barreto)

Thanks to the ICJ ruling, Nicaragua has seen its exclusive economic zone in the Caribbean double in size. This means that it will be able to extend its fishing activities further afield. There is also rumored to be sizeable, untapped oil reserves in the new territory.

However, the victory for Nicaragua might turn out to be pyrrhic, since with more power comes more responsibility.

Even with the assistance of international navies, Nicaragua is now in charge of Caribbean waters used to traffic drugs northwards from South America. This changing of the guard might see traffickers rubbing their hands with glee as responsibility has passed from Latin America’s largest navy to one of its smallest.

Roberto Cajina, an expert on Nicaraguan defence, said: “Our victory in The Hague was a bitter fruit because Nicaragua does not have the capacity to guarantee permanent security of its newly acquired maritime zone.”

Indeed, the decision could see Nicaragua forced into the escalating the ‘drug war’ that plagues other Central American nations, but which it has remained relatively distant from. Nicaraguan officials have boasted about their country being a ‘firewall’ in this problem.

But now it will have to go on the offensive instead of the defensive, and considerably change its military planning, that according to Cajina lacks “strategy” and “vision”. He draws attention to the recent decision by the government to spend US$244 million of a limited budget on a satellite from China and Russian-made assault vehicles that can only patrol rivers, not seas.

Most commentators expect Colombia to calm down in the coming weeks and seek a proper resolution to the dispute. Nicaragua will also be hoping for a speedy resolution, especially a peaceful one to remove the Colombian vessels that are still in the country’s lost territory.

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