San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Nicaragua 'irreparably damaging' Costa Rica, world court hears

THE HAGUE, Netherlands – Nicaragua is violating international law by sending construction workers and soldiers to a tiny Costa Rican island, the International Court of Justice heard Monday, the latest salvo in the Central American dispute.

“Nicaragua’s actions are not accidental: Nicaragua has undertaken a constant and long-running campaign to violate its international legal obligations with regard to Costa Rica,” said Édgar Ugalde Álvarez, representing Costa Rica at The Hague-based court. “Nicaragua continues to cause irreparable damage to Costa Rica.” 

Nicaragua on Tuesday will put its case to the court, claiming that the disputed island – called Isla Portillos by San José and Harbour Head by Managua – is historically its territory.

The bitter border dispute was first brought before the world court, the only forum to judge disputes between states, in 2010 after Costa Rica accused Nicaragua of sending troops onto the three-square-kilometer (just over one square mile) island near the mouth of the Río San Juan.

The world court ruled in March 2011 that both countries must refrain from sending anyone to, or maintaining anyone on, the disputed territory, whether they are civilians, police or military. Costa Rica says that Nicaragua is not respecting that ruling.

“Unfortunately, Costa Rica is obliged to ask you once more to take protective measures,” Ugalde  told the court.

Foreign Vice Minister Gioconda Ubeda on Monday said Costa Rica “got its first victory 72 hours before the beginning of the hearings,” referring to the fact that Nicaragua on Friday tried to prevent the hearings by claiming that “they were unnecessary as they had suspended all works and removed all equipment and personnel from the area.”

“Nicaragua has admitted, as Costa Rica denounced, that they have been repeatedly disobeying the International Court of Justice, and violated the sovereignty and territory of Costa Rica. This fact constitutes our first legal victory,” she added.

At a press conference Ubeda said that “forced by the strength of the evidence,” Nicaragua admitted that they entered the disputed area, and that they did perform dredging works, and admitted they constructed the artificial canals.

“However, due to the repeated breaches of Managua, Costa Rica will remain steady in proceeding with the hearings, in presenting solid evidence and maintaining the request of issuing new measures,” the vice minister added.

Costa Rica used satellite and aerial photographs to show that Nicaragua is continuing to build two canals, which may be aimed at changing the course of water at the mouth of the San Juan River.

Nicaragua is sending workers to the island for the construction work and thus damaging the fragile ecology of the protected area, Ugalde alleged. The island, “whether big or small, … is Costa Rican territory and international law must recognize this,” he told AFP on arrival at the court.

Tensions in the area flared in 2011, when Nicaragua filed suit before the world court over a road on the Costa Rican side of the border, which Managua said was also causing environmental damage.

Founded in 1945, the world court is the United Nations’ highest court. It has no power to enforce its rulings, but two countries must agree before a case can be brought before the court.

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