Maritime tensions

Could an ICJ ruling affect Colombia and Nicaragua’s bilateral relations?

The International Court of Justice (“ICJ”) has ruled in Nicaragua’s favour in a maritime dispute with Colombia, the two states share a maritime border which has at times been a flashpoint of significant bilateral tension. The ICJ determined that Colombia breached its international obligation to respect Nicaragua’s sovereign rights and jurisdiction by patrolling and trying to control fishing in areas that the ICJ had previously held to be within Nicaragua’s exclusive economic zone.  

For context , Colombia, Nicaragua, and the United States have at various time claimed sovereignty over areas southwest of the Caribbean Sea, north of Colombia, and east of Nicaragua. In 2001, Nicaragua commenced proceedings before the ICJ against Colombia in order to finally establish a legal and recognised claim to the territory and maritime delimitation in the western Caribbean.  

A university professor and expert advisor in international law explained, “Under this scenario, the recent ruling of the ICJ concluded that Nicaragua did not prove that Colombia violated the rights of that country with Navy operations and fishing permits. But it was said that the rights over the exclusive economic and maritime zone have been violated by giving fishing permits to the communities and authorising oil exploration. I would say that these are the central themes of the ruling.”

“…the recent ruling of the ICJ concluded that the rights over the exclusive economic and maritime zone have been violated [by Colombia] by giving fishing permits to the communities and authorising oil exploration.”

Expert advisor in international law, Colombia 

This process had been approached in three stages: (i) Maritime delimitation, nullity of the Esguerra Barcenas treaty and sovereign rights, claims decided on the merits by ICJ in 2012, (ii) non-compliance with the 2012 judgment and use of force and (iii) Extended Continental Shelf Rights. 

Regarding these three stages, the ruling of April 2021 has as a precedent: the 2012 judgment of the ICJ, through which Colombia maintained sovereignty over the archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina, and of the keys (cayos) and also 12 nautical miles of water surrounding these territories, but Colombia lost almost 75,000 square kilometres of sea to Nicaragua. 

The two governments of Nicaragua and Colombia continue to clash over the issue. This is how, for example, Nicaragua’s President, Daniel Ortega, has failed by accusing Colombia of being a “narco state.” And on the other hand, Colombia’s President, Iván Duque, has insisted that he will not allow Nicaragua to limit the rights of Colombia in the Caribbean Sea, nor those of the Raizal community of the San Andrés and Providencia archipelago.  

“Colombia must do so in light of the obligation of being a State party to the UN Charter (Art. 94) …compliance with the ruling is an obligation of the State and not of the government.”

Expert advisor in international law, Colombia

It remains unclear whether Colombia will now comply, given its historic refusal to comply with the 2012 Ruling, alleging that only a bilateral treaty between Colombia and Nicaragua could modify the maritime borders. That said, the university professor sounds more optimistic, “Colombia must do so in light of the obligation of being a State party to the UN Charter (Art. 94) where compliance with ICJ rulings is established. And I say this because compliance with the ruling is an obligation of the State and not of the government.”

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