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IBRU: Centre for Borders Research

Boundary news

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ICJ rules on Costa Rica-Nicaragua river dispute

(28 July 2009)

On 13 July the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued its Judgment in the case between Costa Rica and Nicaragua concerning navigational and related rights over the San Juan river.

The boundary between Costa Rica and Nicaragua follows the Costa Rican bank of the San Juan river for approximately 192 miles. The 1858 treaty which established the boundary gave Nicaragua sovereignty over the waters of the river but guaranteed the right of free navigation for Costa Rica from the mouth of the river in the Caribbean Sea to a point located 3 miles south of the Castillo Vejo. Costa Rica instituted proceedings against Nicaragua at the ICJ in September 2005 after the latter began requiring Costa Rican travellers to hold Nicaragua visas and tourist cards while on board Costa Rican vessels, and asking Costa Rican vessels to pay a charge for departure clearance certificates. Written proceedings were submitted between August 2006 and July 2008, with oral hearings taking place in March 2009.

The ICJ ruled that Costa Rica has the right of free navigation on the San Juan for purposes of commerce. This includes the transportation of passengers and tourists without any requirement to obtain a Nicaraguan visa or tourist card. The Court also judged that Costa Rican inhabitants of the south bank of the river are allowed to navigate freely for purposes of everyday life needs; and that official vessels are allowed to navigate for the provision of basic services - although this does not include police functions.

With regard to Nicaragua's claims, the Court determined that Nicaragua has the right to regulate navigation, but that while performing their duties Nicaraguan personnel must abide by the 1858 treaty. Nicaragua has the right to stop vessels at posts; to check identity papers and documents of people on board; to issue departure clearance certificates for reasons of navigational security, environmental protection and criminal law enforcements (but not to charge fees for such certificates); and to demand Costa Rican vessels with masts and turrets to display a Nicaraguan flag.

Fishing in the San Juan was another sensitive issue in the case. The Court ruled that Nicaragua must respect subsistence fishing from the Costa Rican bank as a customary right.

ICJ Judgment and other documents relating to the case