Thursday, December 13, 2007
THE HAGUE, Netherlands: The International Court of Justice affirmed Thursday that three Caribbean islands in a disputed archipelago belong to Colombia, and said it would rule on a disagreement between Colombia and Nicaragua over other islands in the chain and the two countries' maritime border.
Partially rejecting a Colombian challenge to its jurisdiction in a case brought by Nicaragua over ownership of the San Andres Archipelago, the U.N.'s highest judicial body said Colombian sovereignty over the islands of San Andres, Providencia and Santa Catalina was settled in a 1928 treaty.
But it said the treaty did not determine ownership of other islands in the San Andres Archipelago or the maritime boundary.
The court will now proceed with a case brought by Nicaragua seeking a ruling on the border and ownership of the disputed islands.
Colombian Foreign Minister Fernando Araujo welcomed the decision, saying it marked a "fundamental setback" for the Nicaraguan campaign to reclaim the islands.
"The court acknowledged that Nicaragua was trying to win recognition of rights over a part of Colombian territory in which it has never exercised sovereignty or legal authority," Araujo told journalists in Bogota.
The islands are 775 kilometers (480 miles) northwest of Colombia and 220 kilometers (140 miles) off Nicaragua's coast.
In 2003, Nicaragua invited oil companies to drill for oil in waters near the archipelago, which drew the ire of Colombian officials who believed such drilling would take place in their jurisdiction.
In hearings in June, Nicaragua appealed to the court, also known as the World Court, to rule on ownership of the San Andres Archipelago and the waters around it.
Arguing on behalf of Nicaragua, lawyer Alain Pellet pointed to the Bogota Pact of 1948, which designates the U.N. court as the final authority in irresolvable disputes between Latin American countries.
However, "Colombia denied that there was a ... dispute over which the court had jurisdiction, claiming that the matters ... had already been settled" by a 1928 treaty, the court president, Judge Rosalyn Higgins, said Thursday.
Nicaragua claims the islands belong to it, because they were improperly ceded to Colombia in the treaty in 1928, a period in which the country was under U.S. military occupation.
Lawyers for Nicaragua told the court in June that the country's diplomats were forced to sign the agreement to help reconciliation efforts between the United States and Colombia.
The treaty "gave them what they already possessed, the Mosquito Coast, in exchange for what (also) belonged to them, the San Andres Archipelago," Nicaragua lawyer Alain Pellet said.
The court rejected that argument, but said the treaty did not cover parts of the archipelago or establish a maritime boundary.
The two countries will now take months preparing and arguing their case at The Hague-based court. No date was immediately set for filing written arguments or pleading the court's wood-paneled Great Hall of Justice.