Nicaragua Wins Court Victory Over Costa Rica In Case Alleging "Invasion" Of Disputed Territory

March 8, 2011

Nicaragua won an important legal victory over Costa Rica today, when the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague unanimously rejected Costa Rica’s request for an order sanctioning Nicaragua for the alleged “invasion, occupation and use” of Costa Rican territory. The Court also rejected, by a vote of 17-0, Costa Rica’s request that Nicaragua be ordered to stop dredging the San Juan River, which forms part of the border between the two Central American countries.

Turning aside Costa Rica’s requests, the ICJ, also known as the World Court, instead determined that sovereignty over the 3 km² piece of uninhabitable swampland which Costa Rica claims Nicaragua “invaded,” is in legitimate dispute, and that both States should refrain from sending their military, police or civilian personnel to this extremely remote area for the duration of the case – expected to last 3-4 years -- when title will finally be determined.

In regard to the San Juan River, the Court unanimously confirmed that Nicaragua alone enjoys sovereignty, and that it therefore has the undisputed right to dredge the river to improve navigation. By a vote of 17-0, the Court rejected Costa Rica’s claim that Nicaragua’s dredging operations threatened environmental harm to Costa Rica’s side of the river, concluding that the evidence did not support this charge.

“Nicaragua is extremely happy with the Court’s ruling, today,” said Carlos Arguello Gómez, head of its legal team and Ambassador of Nicaragua in the Netherlands. “It completely contradicts Costa Rica’s worldwide propaganda campaign falsely painting Nicaragua as an aggressor for allegedly invading and occupying its territory. As the Court made clear, this dispute is over a tiny patch of uninhabited swamp in a remote jungle area, which both States claim. Its economic value is probably less than 10% of what Costa Rica has already spent on legal fees, not to mention the exorbitant cost of sending its officials around the world and taking every opportunity to attack Nicaragua. Today they got what they deserved from the Court: absolutely nothing. All of the measures requested by Costa Rica were rejected unanimously.”

Nicaragua’s legal team included experienced World Court lawyers Paul Reichler and Lawrence Martin of Foley Hoag LLP in Washington DC, Professor Alain Pellet of the University of Paris, and Professor Stephen McCaffrey of the University of the Pacific Law School, in Sacramento, Calif. Mr. Reichler added: “During the course of the oral hearings in January, Costa Rica drastically scaled back its requested measures, but even those minimal requests were rejected by the Court. The ruling today confirms that Costa Rica completely failed in its effort to show that Nicaragua’s activities in or near the disputed area caused, or will cause, any environmental harm. As regards sovereignty over the disputed swampland, the Court recognized that both States have serious claims, which cannot be resolved at this stage as Costa Rica hoped, but only after a full hearing on the merits.”

Rather than grant Costa Rica’s requests for an order against Nicaragua, the Court unanimously ordered both States to avoid exacerbating the conflict by refraining from sending any government personnel – military, police or civilian – into the disputed area pending a final ruling in the case. Both States were also ordered to refrain from taking any other action that might aggravate the conflict or prejudice the final outcome. Ambassador Arguello expressed his full satisfaction with the “evenhandedness” of the Court’s ruling.

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