San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Costa Rica, Nicaragua both claim victory as court issues first ruling

Costa Rica and Nicaragua both claimed victory this week in response to the provisional rulings announced by the International Court of Justice over alleged environmental damage and territorial sovereignty along the Río San Juan.

Around 9 a.m. local time on Tuesday, world court lead magistrate Hisashi Owada read four detailed provisional rulings. The first, which Costa Rica celebrated as victory, announced that, “Each Party shall refrain from sending to, or maintaining in the disputed territory, any personnel, whether civilian, police or security.”

Since the arrival of the Nicaraguan troops on the Isla Calero last October, a disputed parcel of land on the south side of the Río San Juan, Costa Rica has worked through diplomatic channels to have them removed. In November, the Organization of American States (OAS) recommended the troops should leave the area, advice that Nicaragua did not follow.

“We are completely satisfied with the ruling as it will put an immediate stop to the Nicaraguan invasion of Costa Rica,” Foreign Minister René Castro said Tuesday. “The ruling sets an international precedent that other countries that choose not to have a military will have their sovereign rights upheld by international diplomatic bodies.”

In addition to the court’s order to vacate the area, judges also said both nations must refrain from any actions that may further aggravate the conflict, and that only Costa Rican environmental personnel are permitted to enter the area.

Regarding Costa Rica’s claim that Nicaragua has caused environmental damage in the area, the court said that dredging could result in “plausible” environmental damage, but that Nicaragua is allowed to continue dredging the Río San Juan, just not in Isla Calero.

In response to the rulings, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla deemed the court’s decision a “resounding” national victory. Pictures sent by the presidential press office show her raising her fist in victory as she smiles broadly.

In a public conference held at the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) in downtown San José, Chinchilla, dressed in all white to reiterate her nation’s stance on peace, was greeted by a standing ovation by members of her political cabinet, lawmakers, and many residents of the capital.

“Today is a day of jubilation,” she said. “Our country has won an overwhelming and justified victory thanks to our best weapons of defense: the weapons of peace, international rights and multilateral system.”

Chinchilla’s triumphant 15-minute speech was wrought with similar references to justice obtained peacefully, statements that international bodies support Costa Rica’s decision to be army-less, and an appeal for Nicaraguans and Costa Ricans to reestablish a cordial political relationship.

At the conclusion of her speech, four women dressed in white sang “Patriótica Costarricense,” a popluar anthem. 

We Won Too!

While the Costa Rican government trumpeted victory, so too did Nicaragua, as Nicaraguan politicians and diplomats also expressed satisfaction with the court’s ruling.

Minutes after the announcement was broadcast worldwide, Nicaragua’s ambassador to The Hague, Carlos Argüello, acknowledged his country’s “victory” because Nicaragua would be allowed to continue dredging the river.

Jaime Incer Barquero, a renowned Nicaraguan conservationist and presidential advisor, called the ruling a defeat for Costa Rica.

“I really would like to see the reaction of our government first, but I can go ahead and say that I really think Costa Rica lost,” he told Nicaraguan newspaper El Diario Nuevo on Tuesday morning. “Their intention was to show that we invaded them, and that was dispelled… This ruling is not going to affect the process of defining the border.”

In a 22-page transcript of the court’s decision, aside from referring to Costa Rica’s original accusation of a Nicaraguan invasion, the court avoided use of the words “invade” and “invasion.”

In the Costa Rican capital, midway through her speech Chinchilla reminded the audience of an important piece of information that was blurred by the ebullience of the official celebration:

“The International Court of Justice’s decision doesn’t imply the end of our litigation with Nicaragua. The cause of our differences remains and hasn’t been solved,” she said. “The Nicaraguan government insists that Isla Los Portillos [Isla Calero] belongs to them. Costa Ricans know [it] is ours and always has been. Within several months, or perhaps years, the court will settle this judicial dispute.”

Despite the dual victory parties by each country, the provisional court rulings are not final rulings. Cases at The Hague typically last several years before final decisions are issued.

Meanwhile, officials from both countries have said they will comply with this week’s provisional court rulings. Their next step will be to reestablish some sort of diplomatic dialogue. Diplomats from Mexico and Guatemala have offered to serve as mediators. 

“We are willing to sit at a table with Nicaragua to reengage in bilateral discussions as soon as Nicaragua removes its troops from the region, as ordered by the court,” Chinchilla said. “In the company of reliable witnesses [Guatemala and Mexico], we are ready to initiate a process to normalize relations with the government of Nicaragua.”

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who was quiet through most of the day, appeared on national television Tuesday night to address the court’s ruling.

“It is not important to say who won and who lost,” he said. “We are satisfied with the sentence of the court and we will obey it. Of course we will obey it.”

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