Costa Rica v Nicaragua: ICJ provisionally orders Isla Calero to be abandoned

March 8, 2011

By Robert Grabosch, Attorney at law

The International Court of Justice has just read out its preliminary decision on the Costa Rica v Nicaragua border dispute. The court decided that both Nicaragua and Costa Rica must for now abandon the disputed Isla Calero, in particular Nicaragua must withdraw its civilian, security and military personnel on the island. In addition, the majority held that Costa Rica may send non-military personnel on the island, but only as necessary in order to safeguard the natural environment from damage.1

The court held that it was at least plausible that the island is territory of the State of Costa Rica, not Nicaragua. The final decision will not be easy, since the area has always been un-inhabited and there seems to be no treaty which explicitly demarcates the land. The 1858 Cañas-Jerez Treaty determines that Nicaragua must permit Costa Rica to use the river San Juan for transportation. It is so far unclear whether the treaty implicitly allocates titles to territory over the lands adjacent to the San Juan. Since Isla Calero lies in a wetland area of the river’s delta, there is also the geographical question of whether the island can be said to fall on one side of the river.2

Isla Calero itself is of no particular use to either of the two countries. It therefore seems puzzling that the island has become the object of such a high-profile dispute. Possibly, the occupation of the island by Nicaragua military during President Daniel Ortega’s re-election campaign was meant to nurture rumours about the construction of a Nicaragua Canal. As an infrastructure project comparable to the Panama Canal, such construction would imply a boost for Nicaragua’s economy.3

Robert is Rechtsanwalt (Attorney at law) and Ph.D. student in Berlin, Germany, and specialises on the responsibility of transnational corporations for human rights violations in the Global South. He studied law at the Humboldt University of Berlin and the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, and obtained an LL.M. (International Law) at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, in 2009.

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1The preliminary decision will be published online in the course of today here. An overview on the case has JURIST.

2A satellite image of the area can be seen on google maps at this link.

3More background information can be found on telepolis, at this link [German].

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