Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos addressed the nation Monday, explaining in detail the reasons why his administration would do “everything in its capacity” to thwart the “expansionist ambitions” of Nicaragua. Mr. Santos’ televised remarks came within hours after his government ruled “inapplicable” the ruling last November by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) which ordered new demarcation lines in western Caribbean waters, affecting Colombia’s sovereignty over the San Andrés islands.
During the past 10 months, since the ICJ ruled in favor of Nicaragua’s maritime claims, relations have been strained between the two nations. Even though the international court reaffirmed the sovereignty of the islands San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina, it “locked in” three islets – Serrana, Roncador and Quitasueño – which Colombia claims are only of interest to the Central American nation because of potential gas and oil reserves.
With strong language between presidents Santos and Ortega, Nicaragua this month added fuel to fire announcing that the army would protect an oilrig in the disputed waters. Nicaragua’s Noble Energy began drilling last month at a location known as Paradise South Well 1, and located within the Isabel Bank and Tyra Bank of the west Caribbean.
After grappling with nationwide strikes during the last several months, the Colombia – Nicaragua dispute once again catapults a regional issue to the forefront of President Santos’ foreign policy agenda. Having seen his popularity ratings sink as a result of the way his administration managed the farmers’ strike, the “inapplicable” stance by the Colombian government will undoubtedly resound well with the islanders of San Andrés, who were dealt a severe blow last year to their economic autonomy as thousands of fishermen lost rights to fish near the continental shelf.
The archipelago of San Andrés lies 200 km from Nicaragua and 800 km from the Colombian mainland. The islanders have been governed by Bogotá since the 1880s.
The diplomatic and political fallout over the ICJ ruling was historic and unprecedented for Colombia. Not since the South American nation relinquished Panama in 1903, has there been such show of solidarity across all political lines.
Hours after the Hague-based Judge Peter Tomka read out the ICJ verdict, Santos announced Colombia would pull out of the Bogotá Pact; a treaty which came into effect in 1948, and under which signatory countries agree to recognize rulings by the International Court of Justice, as well as settle disputes through peaceful means. The Colombian president announced Monday that his nation no longer forms part of the treaty.
Drawing on his years in the Colombian navy as a cadet on the ‘ARC Antioquia,’ President Santos spoke out to calm the frayed nerves of the islanders. “What I guarded as a sailor and defended as a minister, I will protect until the ultimate consequences as president.”
Colombia’s Foreign Minister María Ángela Holguín has been more conciliatory in her remarks. “Hopefully we can have a dialogue with Nicaragua,” she said during an interview with W Radio. She also clarified that not “applying” the ICJ ruling was not the same as not recognizing it. The Minister went on to state: “We will use diplomacy, as we want peace and tranquility for the Caribbean.”
Former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, who has been critical of his former Minister of Defense has also thrown his support behind Santos, and his decision to not apply the ICJ ruling. “It is illegal because it breaks the unity of the archipelago,” he said to El Espectador newspaper. “It’s illegal because it ignores the historical limits Colombia has had since the days of the Liberator.”
President Santos also emphasized the “great value” of the archipelago’s biodiversity and how the area was declared by Unesco a Biosphere Reserve. “We will advance with determination in the protection of our environmental and social objectives to avoid any harm which could arise for our fishermen, and the waters surrounding the archipelago.”
During 30 minutes President Santos presented Colombia’s decision eloquently. He even went as far as to claim that the court’s approved demarkation – just 100 miles from the coast of Cartagena – is “absurd.” The president will take the contentious issue to the next General Assembly meeting of the United Nations.