The ruling last month by the U.N.’s International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague which reduced Colombia’s maritime boundary with Nicaragua has ignited a legal and charged patriotic debate as to who owns the western Caribbean.
The Colombian case seemed almost watertight. A resounding sense of confidence permeated the country on November 19 that the International Court of Justice would, after 11 years, rule in favor of Colombia and ratify this country’s long-standing sovereignty over the archipelago of San Andrés.
As ICJ Judge Peter Tomka read out loud in English the high court’s ruling, the clapping and cheering of the islanders quickly turned to shock. Colombia was expected to lose some water in the western Caribbean, but despite confirming Colombia’s sovereignty over 7 islands, the ICJ went so far as to strip this nation of 100,000 km2 of sea and create “enclaves” with keys Serrana and Quitasueño – which as of that Monday – became officially engulfed in Nicaraguan waters.
The diplomatic and political fallout over the ICJ ruling has been historic and unprecedented. Not since Colombia handed over Panama in 1903 has the country been so polarized over an international decision. Even the Presidency was caught off guard.
Leaders react with shock
“Never again should we have to face what happened to us,” remarked Santos on San Andrés’ decision day. An emergency press conference from the presidential palace was summoned, and it became clear that Colombia might not adhere the ICJ’s decision.
Even former President Álvaro Uribe, who pledged when in office during a meeting with President Ortega that he would uphold an ICJ ruling in the Caribbean, retracted and rallied through his tweets to Santos’ and a bruised nation’s cause.
For the islanders of San Andrés, the ruling dealt a severe blow to their economic independence as well as the livelihoods of thousands of fishermen who lost rights to fish near the continental shelf, an area of rich marine biodiversity and endangered reefs, were put into question. Many scholars of a dispute which dates back to the 1880s believe that Nicaragua wants to exploit these waters for offshore drilling and tap into billion dollar contracts with transnational oil companies.
The maritime dispute between Colombia and Nicaragua started in 1928 when both countries signed the Esguerra-Bárcenas treaty in Managua. Using the 82nd meridian as a maritime marker, Colombia could claim its rights to anything east of the line.
Bound by a 54-year-old treaty
In 1948, during the Conference of American States, Colombia signed the “Bogotá Pact” which required member states to find peaceful solutions to regional conflicts. Ratified by16 nations, it also granted power to the ICJ as the legal arbiter to rule when agreements could not be arrived upon through diplomatic means.
When the Sandinistas took power in Nicaragua and elected President Daniel Ortega, the Esguerra-Bárcenas treaty was annulled, and the Central American nation began to assert its claim over the archipelago. The historic position of the Sandinistas, according to Gen. Augusto Sandino is that “sovereignty is not discussed, it’s defended with guns in hand.”
Last month, in a move to gain legal options and time, the government of Juan Manuel Santos announced that it would pull out of the Bogotá Pact. While the country can go it alone in conflict resolution with its neighbors, to disregard the ICJ decision could thrust this country into a never-ending cycle of territorial claims and disputes with Nicaragua.
The archipelago of San Andrés lies 200 km from Nicaragua and 800 km from the Colombian mainland. Although the proud islanders have been governed by Bogotá since the 1880s, their cultural ties are closer to the Caymans and Jamaica.
Founded by Baptist settlers of Dutch and English origins, the peoples of the San Andrés and Providencia have held on to English as their mother tongue and Colombian status due to their privileged location as a vibrant Caribbean destination.
Hours after the controversial ruling by the ICJ, which the nation agreed it would accept at first, Colombians from the continent responded with an unprecedented outburst of patriotism. From the social networks to the airwaves, Colombian pride was clearly wounded by a higher court in Europe.
“I feel betrayed and hurt,” said Esteban Garcia, as he watched the proceedings from a cafeteria in downtown Bogotá. “It’s a racist decision. They are ruling as if we are still their slaves.”