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IBRU: Centre for Borders Research

Boundary news

Boundary news Headlines

Burkina Faso and Niger submit boundary dispute to the International Court of Justice

(22 July 2010)

Burkina Faso and Mali have jointly submitted a boundary dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for binding adjudication. The two states had signed an agreement to send their dispute to the ICJ on 24 February 2009 (entering into force on 20 November 2009) but the application was filed into the Court’s Registry on 20 July 2010. Burkina Faso and Niger have asked the ICJ to determine the course of their boundary between two identified endpoints, the survey pillar at Tong Tong (14 deg 25’ 04”N, 00 deg 12’ 47”E) in the north to the Boutou curve in the south (12 deg 36’ 18”N, 01 deg 52’ 07”E). This constitutes the vast majority of the central section of their boundary and the two parties made clear that the northern and southern extremities of the boundary (from Tong Tong to the tripoint with Mali, and Boutou to the tripoint with Benin) have already been demarcated by a Joint Technical Commission.

The central section of the Burkina Faso-Niger boundary was delimited in French administrative arrêté of 31 August 1927 which was subsequently revised by a subsequent arrêté on 5 October 1927. The Special Agreement (Compromis) seising the ICJ specifies that the Court is to determine the boundary in the disputed section according to articles 1 and 2 of an agreement dated 28 March 1987. This 1987 agreement established a joint technical commission to demarcate the boundary in accordance with the two 1927 arrêtés. The 1987 agreement also made clear that if the arrêtés proved insufficient to demarcate the boundary on the ground, both states agreed that the demarcation should be guided by the line depicted on the 1960 edition of the 1:200,000 topographic map series by the Institut Géographique Nationale (IGN). Therefore, the ICJ will determine the course of the Burkina Faso-Niger boundary based on the description of the line in the 1927 arrêtés, supplemented by the 1960 versions of the 1:200,000 IGN maps.

According to the Compromis, both states have agreed that the case should be heard by the full Court with both states appointing ad hoc judges. However, the Compromis makes a number of slightly unusual, procedural requests. First, the two states have set a very strict timetable for the written pleadings, specifying that their initial memorials will be submitted within nine months of seising the Court and counter-memorials submitted nine months after the memorials. The Court could then set any additional deadlines for written pleadings and the timetable for oral hearings. Although it is not uncommon for states to specify the timetable for written proceedings, the ICJ usually sets the timetable for both written and oral proceedings and has to integrate the new case into its busy docket. Given the ICJ’s heavy case load which has tended to draw-out proceedings over several years, it would appear that Burkina Faso and Niger desire a faster resolution of the dispute. In addition, the Compromis specifies that within 18 months of the ICJ decision, the two states will begin demarcation of the adjudicated boundary on the ground. Burkina Faso and Niger have also asked the Court to designate three experts to advise them on the demarcation process. If any disagreements emerge during demarcation, the Compromis indicates that either party can seise the Court again for further clarification of the boundary decision.

In addition to the procedural requests, this submission to the ICJ by Burkina Faso and Niger may be significant for the settlement of future boundary disputes, particularly in Africa. Although it is not mentioned explicitly, it is possible that both states were motivated to resolve their dispute by the African Union Border Programme which has encouraged African states to clearly define their international boundaries by 2012. The speed of proceedings specified by Burkina Faso and Niger may encourage other states who may have been discouraged by the lengthy timeline of previous boundary adjudications to request a more rapid settlement. This is the ninth land boundary case (excluding disputes over maritime boundaries or territorial sovereignty) to be submitted to the ICJ since 1957 and the sixth from Africa. As other African states embark on clarification of their inherited boundaries under the encouragement of the African Union Border Programme, it is possible that the ICJ may become a popular avenue for peacefully resolving other boundary disputes caused by ambiguities in the original boundary definitions.

It is also noteworthy that Burkina and Niger have asked the Court to identify three experts to advise on the process of demarcating the boundary. The demarcation of the boundary between Cameroon and Nigeria following the 2002 decision of the ICJ has been extremely slow given the numerous questions of detail that emerge when trying to apply the adjudged boundary on the ground. It is unclear exactly what role these experts will play during demarcation of the adjudicated section of the Burkina-Niger boundary, but it is clear that the neighbouring states have foreseen that questions of detail inevitably will emerge. There is no record of the dispute over this boundary section provoking any large scale conflict between the neighbouring states and the Compromis indicates that both states will refrain from any provocative acts in the disputed border areas as well as organise joint border management meetings. Both Burkina Faso and Niger have submitted other boundary disputes to the ICJ previously and it is encouraging to see neighbouring states jointly agree to peaceful means for resolving a boundary dispute.

Source: 'Burkina Faso and Niger jointly submit a frontier dispute to the International Court of Justice' ICJ Press Release No. 2010/24, 21 July 2010; Compromis de Saisine de la Cour Internationale de Justice su Sujet du Differend Frontalier entre Le Burkina Faso et La Republique Du Niger, 29 Fervier 2009.