Colombia Loses Territorial Waters to Nicaragua in International Ruling

PHOTO: For decades Colombia administered all of the are to the right of the 82nd meridian and to the south of parralel 15th.  A decision by the International Court of Justice grants to Nicaragua all of the areas in light blue. [map by Caracol Noticias]

Manuel Rueda/Univision-ABC

The maritime border between Colombia and Nicaragua was changed on Monday, and defined for good, following a highly anticipated ruling from the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

The tribunal, which is made up of judges picked by the UN Security Council, decided on Monday to grant Nicaragua around 60 percent of a disputed area of the caribbean that had been previously administered by Colombia, jeopardizing the future of fishermen from the Colombian island of San Andres, but granting new opportunities to Nicaraguan fishermen.

The area under dispute is shown in the above picture. It consists of a quadrant of the Caribbean Sea that is approximately 126 miles wide by 278 miles long, and also includes the Colombian islands of San Andrés and Providencia, which have a population of some 80,000 people.

A treaty signed in 1928 by Colombia and Nicaragua gave Colombia sovereignty over all the water to the east of 82nd meridian, a geographic line that is located less than 70 miles from the Nicaraguan coast. This document, called the Esguerra-Barcenas treaty, also said that Colombia owned the San Andrés and Providencia Islands.

But Nicaragua said that this treaty was invalid because it was signed at a time when that country was under U.S. occupation. The ICJ also said on Monday that the Esguerra-Barcenas Treaty contradicts international regulations that give countries the right to control an area of the sea that lies within 200 nautical miles [230 miles] off their shores.

In the end, the court redrew the maritime borders between both countries so that the new border is 200 miles from Nicaragua's coast. But a small segment of the disputed area was also granted to Colombia, so that the San Andrés and Providencia islands would not be stuck in Nicaraguan waters and cut off from the rest of Colombia's maritime territory.

Colombia was also given sovereignty over seven remote and uninhabited keys that form part of the San Andrés archipelago, and have historically been used as fishing spots by residents of San Andrés.

The tribunal's decision disappointed many in Colombia, where the loss of Panama, -- which split away from Colombia in 1903 with the help of the U.S -- still makes people wince.

After the ruling was announced, a flurry of Twitter users called for the immediate resignation of Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin, saying that she had not chosen the best legal arguments to defend Colombia's interests in The Hague.

"Once again they've amputated a piece of our country. It hurts to have such an un-operational foreign minister," wrote twitter user @FaridZardibia.

But the most affected by the tribunal's ruling could be fishermen from the islands of San Andrés and Providencia, who will now have a more limited territory in which to fish.

"I feel very sad, [with the ruling]," San Andrés Native Samuel Robinson told Colombia's Caracol Radio. "Fishermen like us will be the ones that will lose the most."

"This is like a genocide," added Arlington Howard, San Andrés' representative in Colombia's congress. "It will be difficult to calculate how much harm will be done to a population that has ancestrally survived by [exploiting] these waters."

Located 400 miles from the Colombian mainland, San Andrés and Providencia have a history that is rather different from the rest of the country. The islands were first inhabited by Scottish and English settlers who arrived there in the late 17th century and also brought African slaves.

In 1786 they became a Spanish possession and with independence, they were transferred to Colombia. But their inhabitants grew up with limited connections to the mainland, and to this day, many speak English as their fist language, although Spanish is also widely spoken on the islands.

Fishing and agriculture were the main economic activities on the islands until the mid 20th century when San Andrés became a major tourist destination for mainland Colombians. This also boosted industries like commerce, and duty-free shopping, which means that nowadays, fishing is not the only activity that sustains the island's economy.

The ICJ ruling puts traditional fishermen in San Andrés in jeopardy however, and makes it more difficult for them to access the Quitasueno and Serrano Keys, two rich fishing grounds, which will now be Colombian enclaves within Nicaraguan waters.

On the other hand, the ICJ ruling expands the reach of Nicaraguan fishermen, and also gives this country the opportunity to sell permits to companies that want to look for oil in the area.

Hours before the ruling was announced the Colombian Navy reported that 40 Nicaraguan fishing vessels were navigating near the old maritime border, the 82nd parallel, waiting for the ICJ to announce a ruling which would expand Nicaragua's territorial waters.

Once the ruling was announced, Nicaraguan officials and intellectuals welcomed its outcome. "The Colombian government should be concerned, [about the San Andrés fishermen]," said Claudia Pineda, the director of the Nicaraguan Institute for Strategic Studies.

"But here in Nicaragua we are pleased with the news, because our fishermen will have many more opportunities to produce," Pineda told the NTN 24 news network.

Some experts in international affairs believe that in the long run the ICJ ruling will benefit both countries.

International Relations Analyst Andrés Molano told Colombia's Caracol Radio that the clear demarcation of borders, which were previously disputed, means that investors will now know which government to deal with when they want to do business in the area, and there will be more clarity over contracts for things like oil exploration and fishing licenses.

"This ruling provides definitive, unappealable claims over Colombia's rights in the Caribbean," Molano said. "The reason that states recognize such rulings is so that international relations can be more harmonious."

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