San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Final Arguments in San Juan River Case

Second in a two-part series on Costa Rica and Nicaragua’s case over the San Juan River


Costa Rica and Nicaragua wrapped up their final arguments in the San Juan River case last week, each side telling the 14-judge panel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at the Hague, Netherlands that 19thcentury agreements validated its claims.

At stake are navigation rights to the San Juan River, which forms nearly half of the border between the two countries to its mouth on the Caribbean Sea. The key point of contention is whether Costa Rican boats carrying guns and tourists can freely navigate the river, which is Nicaraguan territory but open to Costa Rican boats operating for “commercial purposes,” according to the 1858 Cañas-Jerez Treaty and the 1888 Laudo Cleveland Award.

Legal experts for the paintiff, Costa Rica, in their closing remarks last Monday, argued that Nicaragua has the “obligation to allow all Costa Rican vessels and their passengers to navigate freely on the San Juan for purposes of commerce,” including tourism and patrol boats, they said, without facing any “charges or fees.”

Because river merchants carried guns when the treaties were originally signed in the 1800s, the Costa Rican side argues, then the treaties allow boats to carry guns today. Further, the Costa Rican government maintains that tourism is a “commercial purpose,” thus boats should be free to navigate the river for tourism purposes.

Costa Rica also contends that Nicaragua cannot require passengers to carry passports or Nicaraguan visas or force boats stop at checkpoints along the river.

Costa Rica took the case to the ICJ, based in The Hague, Netherlands, in 2005, after Nicaraguan authorities refused to allow armed Costa Rican patrol boats from navigating the river and levied extra fees on Costa Rican boats carrying tourists. Costa Rica is also seeking compensation from Nicaragua, for damages and lost revenues caused by Nicaraguan authorities.

Attorneys for Nicaragua, meanwhile, urged the court to reject Costa Rica’s petition, arguing that it had not violated any of its obligations. They say the treaties gave Nicaragua “full sovereignty” over the river, meaning it could restrict all forms of transportation save for goods and merchandise – including tourism and armed patrol boats.

Nicaragua also alleges that the agreements allow only boats “with articles of trade” or “objects of commerce,” accusing Costa Rica of “free” interpretation of the treaties by expanding the meaning of the agreements, through an inexact translation, to include “for purposes of commerce.”

Victor Hugo Tinoco, a Nicaraguan opposition lawmaker with the Sandinista Renovation Movement and the former vice-foreign minister under the first Sandinista government in the 1980s, says the most important thing to realize about case before The Hague is that Nicaragua’s sovereignty over the river is not in play.

“Our sovereignty is not up for debate, only Costa Rica’s interpretation of its limited navigation rights,” the lawmaker said (Costa Rica’s Foreign Ministry has repeatedly emphasized that it does not dispute that the San Juan River is Nicaraguan territory). Tinoco added that, based on precedent, he doesn’t think there’s any way that The Hague will rule in favor of Costa Rica. But once a decision is handed down, Tinoco said he thinks it will “help to normalize relations with Costa Rica.”

Costa Rica’s Foreign Ministry, for its part, has also said a decision would finally end the primary source of discord between the neighboring countries.

Foreign Minister Bruno Stagno said Costa Rica would honor the ruling of the court, regardless of the case’s final outcome.

“Costa Rica will respect the decision of the court,” Stagno told The Tico Times. “We are a country that respects international law.”

A decision, however, is not likely for months.

“This is the exclusive competence of the judges,” Stagno said, adding that he expects a decision “probably during the course of the year 2009.”

Nica Times Editor Tim Rogers contributed to this report.



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