International Court of Justice rules Colombia violated Nicaragua maritime rights

The International Court of Justice mostly ruled in favor of Nicaragua in its longstanding dispute against Colombia on maritime rights around the archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina. Colombia hoped the court would protect fishing rights of its local community.

San Andrés coast and sea in Colombia
Island of San Andrés, Colombia | © Frank Plamann, 2017

The International Court of Justice ruled on April 21 on the longstanding dispute between Colombia and Nicaragua on alleged violations of sovereign rights and maritime spaces in the Caribbean Sea.

The ICJ considered Colombia violated Nicaragua’s sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone near the archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina.

The decision of the court marks a victory for Nicaragua who brought the case to the ICJ while Colombia hoped to protect its local community living on the islands and their traditional fishing activities.

The court ruled that Colombia interfered with the fishing and conservation activities of Nicaragua. Moreover, Colombia conducted fishing activities and tried to enforce conservation measures which “has violated the Republic of Nicaragua’s sovereign rights and jurisdiction in this maritime zone”. The court asked Colombia to immediately cease these conducts.

The archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina is about 200 kilometers (124 mi) off the coasts of Nicaragua and 650 kilometers (404 mi) off mainland Colombia. It has been the subject of several disputes between both countries as it is the third ruling issued by the ICJ on the matter.

San Andrés, a Colombian island off the coast of Colombia
San Andrés, a Colombian island off the coast of Colombia | ©Google Maps

In November 2012, the ICJ confirmed the sovereignty of Colombia over seven keys near the islands of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina. However, Nicaragua won 40% of the territorial sea, about 70,000 square kilometers (27,000 sq mi), in the west of San Andrés that Colombia considered its own.

After the ruling in 2012, Colombia decided to denounce the American Treaty on Pacific Settlement, also known as the Pact of Bogotá, and stopped recognizing the jurisdiction of the ICJ. But Nicaragua filed a case before Colombia actually left. In its ruling, the court considered the 2012 decision applied to events that took place even after the Pact of Bogotá ceased to be in force in Colombia.

In hearings held last September, Nicaragua argued that Colombia didn’t respect the decisions by constantly patrolling in the area which it claimed constituted a threat of using force.

On the other hand, Colombia argued Nicaragua has been conducting intensive fishing and doesn’t respect the fishing rights of the Raizal people, the Afro-Caribbean ethnic community living in the archipelago, and their access to their traditional fishing areas. The Raizal don’t fish deep underwater with their traditional techniques and consider they need a large area to fish. For Nicaragua, such fishing rights don’t exist.

The president of Colombia Iván Duque and government members traveled to San Andrés to hear the verdict of the ICJ and show his support to the local community as it hoped the ruling would protect the Raizal people.

Colombia also claimed Nicaragua issued a decree to extend its internal waters and maritime territory beyond what international laws allow. The ICJ found that Nicaragua was not in conformity with customary international law in this regard.

The court also considered that the “integral contiguous zone” established by Colombia around Colombian islands in the western Caribbean Sea, which legitimately allows it to patrol and fight against drug trafficking, smuggling, illegal immigration even in Nicaragua’s maritime spaces was not in conformity with customary international law because it extends beyond 24 nautical miles.

In an expected outcome, the ICJ found that Colombia “must, by means of its own choosing, bring into conformity with customary international law the provisions” of the 2012 ruling. The Constitutional Court of Colombia determined in 2014 the ICJ decision could only be implemented through a treaty, which never materialized.

The Court considers a bilateral agreement between the parties would be the “most appropriate solution to address the concerns expressed by Colombia and its nationals in respect of access to fisheries located within Nicaragua’s exclusive economic zone”.

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