San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Court Rules on River Rights

The San Juan River has long divided Nicaragua and Costa Rica, not only physically, but also politically as the two governments bickered over rights to its use. The conflict has leaked into other aspects of the countries’ relationship, such as immigration issues, as well.

However, a ruling handed down by the International Court of Justice in The Hague in the Netherlands on Monday may help bridge those differences by further defining access rights on the 205-kilometer San Juan, which marks most of the border between the two countries.

The decision reaffirms an 1858 treaty by acknowledging Nicaragua’s ownership of the river while still protecting Costa Rica’s right to free commerce along the waterway.

“In reality, it’s a decision that benefits the two parties,” said Edgar Cascante, an international analyst who has been watching the San Juan River case evolve. “Both countries won. And (you may ask), ‘Is this going to improve the Nicaraguan and Costa Rican relationship?’ The answer is absolutely ‘Yes.’ No longer does this issue act as a block to other topics (affecting them).”

The Source of the River Controversy A winding, thickly forested river that flows from Lake Nicaragua to the Caribbean, the San Juan has served as an important avenue for commerce and fishing. A set of treaties in 1858 and 1888 assigned ownership of the river to Nicaragua, but permitted its southern neighbor to use it for commercial purposes –which over the years has involved coffee export and fishing, but most recently tourism.

Recent conflicts about use of the river arose in 1998 when the Nicaraguan government prohibited Costa Rica’s armed police from traveling on the river. Later, in 2001, the Nicaraguans began imposing fines on tourist boats, charging them upward of $25 f for the right of river passage.

Taken together, these two issues propelled Costa Rica to seek relief in the international court in September 2005. (TT, Sept. 30, 2005).

At the time, then-Foreign Minister Roberto Tovar said Costa Rica was asking for “not one right more, not one right less” than what it deserves under the treaties …Why not end forever the only source of disagreement between Costa Rica and Nicaragua…(by presenting) the debate before the highest international court?”

In a decision that took nearly four years and cost Costa Rica $1.5 million in fees and related expenses, the international court asserted that “Costa Rica has the right of free navigation on the San Juan River for the purposes of commerce” – which includes tourism – and “that persons traveling on the San Juan River on board Costa Rican vessels exercising Costa Rica’s right of free navigation are not required to obtain Nicaraguan visas.”

The ruling also stipulated that Costa Rica is not allowed to carry out police functions on the river.

Costa Rican Foreign Minister Bruno Stagno said he regrets this point, as the police force “results in a direct benefit for the populations of the area, independent of their nationality.”

Nevertheless, he said he considers the ruling to be positive.

“Of the nine elements posed by Costa Rica, the court ruled seven in its favor,” he said at a press conference on Monday. “The Foreign Relations Ministry considers this to be a diplomatic triumph.”

His favorable response to the decision was echoed by the country’s northern neighbor.

“Our conclusion is that everyone wins; there is no victory or defeat. We are … brothers and we all want the best for all Central Americans,” said Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.

Not everyone in Nicaragua was pleased with the decision. Opposition leader Eduardo Montealegre, foreign minister in the administration of former President Arnoldo Alemán, said the current government failed to bring arguments before the court that might have allowed Nicaragua to come out further ahead.

“Nicaragua missed out in this trial because Costa Rica was given almost everything it requested, including the navigation on the San Juan River for trade,” he said. “This is the result of the irresponsible behavior of Ortega and his government.”

Patrolling the San Juan

Francisco Aguirre, ex-foreign minister of Nicaragua (2000-2001) and president of the National Assembly’s foreign affairs commission, said the “most important consideration” for Nicaragua is that Costa Rica will not be allowed to navigate the river with guns aboard their boats.

“You cannot be a sovereign if people can come into your territory with guns,” Aguirre said. So that part of the ruling in favor of Nicaragua was “a major victory for us,” he said.

The decision also places a burden on Costa Rica to create infrastructure further back from the river, said Cascante.

“There need to be roads, highways, immigration offices, and the like,” he said.

“Our police have been navigating these waters because we have never had (an adequate presence) on the northern border. … This is not the Nicaraguan government’s responsibility; it is ours (Costa Rica’s).”

A New Trade on the River

The international court’s decision further supports Costa Rica’s use of the river for commerce – including the newest industry in the area, tourism – and, as a result, some are bracing for what could be an increase in the number of businesses, hotels and guided tours.

According to the ruling, Nicaragua no longer may require visas or levy special fees on tours using the San Juan. Therefore, the region could see increased development on both sides on the river.

Yaró Choiseul-Praslin, who owns the seven cabin Sábalos Lodge on the Nicaraguan side, welcomes the ruling.

“I hope this will benefit people on both sides of the river…and that progress will, in turn, serve the two countries,” he said.

Javier Chamorro, president of ProNicaragua, the Nicaraguan government’s investment promotion agency, said the resolution could help speed up important bilateral projects such as the muchanticipated coastal highway that will connect Costa Rica’s Guanacaste province to the Nicaraguan coastal town of San Juandel Sur, and the opening of a new tourism border crossing at La Cruz. The project, which has been discussed for years, has been held up – in part, Chamorro says – by the case that had been before the court in The Hague.

“Both countries wanted to see what the legal relationship was going to be before continuing to develop the project,” Chamorro said this week. The resolution should help speed the process of building the road, he said.

In the short term, Choiseul-Praslin said the decision will not change much along the river way, except there will be fewer patrol boats carrying weapons.

“This has never been a conflict between the people. It’s a government issue,” he said. “The people who live and work along the river have always had an excellent relationship. There is nothing that stands between us …not even a border.”

Tim Rogers contributed to this report.


The San Juan River Controversy

1500s The San Juan River served as an i mportant travel and trade route used by explorers, pirates, merchants and missionaries.

1820s The river became an important commercial asset as an export route to the Caribbean for gold and, later, coffee.

1858 The Cañas-Jeréz treaty was signed, defining Nicaragua’s ownership and Costa Rica’s navigation rights. The treaty was not only central to the conflict between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, but also to United States and England, which stood at either end of the dispute. Costa Rica (which sided with England) was pressured by the U.S. to hand the river over to Nicaragua. At the same time, a clause was added granting Costa Rica the freedom to navigate the river for trade and fiscal purposes.

1890 The river stopped being essential for Costa Rica, after the San José – Limón railroad was built connecting the capital city to the Caribbean coast.

1998 Nicaraguan President Arnoldo Alemán bans Costa Rican armed patrols on the river.

2000 Costa Rica suggests arbitration by the Organization of American States, but Nicargua opposes this, instead requesting bilateral dialogue.

2001 Nicaragua imposes a $25 toll on Costa Rican boats.

2005 Costa Rica brings the case before the International Court of Justice in the Netherlands. In response, then-Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolaños asks the military to “increase their presence and vigilance along the San Juan River.”

January, 2009 Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega reiterates his interest in a canal project involving a $30 billion expansion project that would include the dredging and expansion of the San Juan River. A canal project including the river has been discussed for centuries, but it has never made it off paper.

July, 2009 The International Court of Justice delivers its ruling, which reaffirms Nicaraguan ownership of the river and Costa Rica’s navigation rights.

SOURCE: Tico Times Archives


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