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IBRU: Centre for Borders Research

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ICJ rejects interventions in Nicaragua v. Colombia case

(5 May 2011)

ICJ maps relating to interventions

   Maps: International Court of Justice

The International Court of Justice ruled on 4 May 2011 that it cannot grant permission to Costa Rica and Honduras to intervene in the territorial sovereignty and maritime boundary case between Colombia and Nicaragua which was submitted to the Court by Nicaragua in December 2001.

Costa Rica applied to intervene in the case as a non-party for the “purpose of informing the Court of the nature of [its] legal rights and interests and of seeking to ensure that the Court’s decision regarding the maritime boundary between Nicaragua and Colombia does not affect those rights and interests”. Both Colombia and Nicaragua accepted the existence of a legal interest on the part of Costa Rica in at least some areas claimed by the parties in the main proceedings, but the Court judged that the indication of such an area was not sufficient in itself to justify an intervention. The Court further noted that Costa Rica had failed to demonstrate that its legal interest would be affected by the decision in the main proceedings when, if necessary, a boundary could be drawn which terminates before it reaches the area in which Costa Rica's legal interests would become involved.

Honduras applied to intervene in the case first as a party and, failing that, as a non-party. The Court reasoned that that the application boiled down to two propositions: (i) that the Court's 2007 judgment concerning the Honduras-Nicaragua maritime boundary had failed to settle the entire boundary; and (ii) that the decision in the Nicaragua v. Colombia case could affect rights enjoyed by Honduras under its 1986 maritime boundary agreement with Colombia. The Court rejected both propositions, noting that since a bilateral treaty neither confers and rights nor imposes any duties on third states, the Court would not place any reliance on the Colombia-Honduras maritime boundary agreement in determining the maritime boundary between Colombia and Nicaragua.

The decision to reject Costa Rica's application to intervene was only passed by nine votes to seven, and four dissenting opinions (one of them a joint opinion) and two declarations were appended to the judgment. The decision to reject Honduras' application to intervene was passed by a more decisive thirteen votes to two, with two dissenting opinions and three declarations appended to the judgment.

Both judgments contained sketch maps which indicated the maritime boundaries claimed by Nicaragua and Colombia in their written pleadings (Nicaragua's Reply and Colombia's Rejoinder). Colombia's proposed boundary appears to be a median line between the islands and cays of the San Andrés y Providencia archipelago and Nicaragua's Corn Islands, while Nicaragua appears to have shifted from the boundary proposed in its Memorial - a median line between the mainland coasts of Nicaragua and Colombia - to a proposed line at least 50 nautical miles further to the east.

With interventions ruled out, the path now appears clear for the ICJ to set dates for hearings on the merits of the case, which relate to: (i) sovereignty over the Cayos de Albuquerque; the Cayos del Este Sudeste; Roncador Cay; North Cay, Southwest Cay and any other cays on Serrana bank; East Cay, Beacon Cay and any other cays on Serranilla Bank; and Low Cay and any other cays on Bajo Nuevo bank; and (ii) to the maritme boundary between the two states. In its judgment on Colombia's preliminary objects to the case brought by Nicaragua, the Court ruled that Colombia has sovereignty over the islands of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina.

Source: Written pleadings, Judgments and press releases in the Territorial and Maritime Dispute (Nicaragua v. Colombia) case before the International Court of Justice.