Nicaragua and Costa Rica Return to the ICJ for 3rd Case over the San Juan River

On December 22, 2011, Nicaragua instituted proceedings in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against Costa Rica for “violations of Nicaraguan sovereignty and major environmental damages to its territory” (see Nicaragua’s Application and  ICJ Press Release). This is the latest dispute in a string of conflicts between the two nations that has spanned more than a century, and the third presented to the ICJ in the past few years (see prior post briefly discussing this history).

The first case heard by the ICJ—Dispute Regarding Navigational and Related Rights—instituted by Costa Rica in 2005 concerned Costa Rica’s right to freely (without obstacles or taxation) navigate the San Juan River. The Court held that, while the River is Nicaraguan territory and Nicaragua can regulate the River traffic for national security, Costa Rica has the right of navigation for the “purposes of commerce” (see pleadings and related material here). In the second ICJ dispute—Certain Activities carried out by Nicaragua in the Border Area—which was instituted in 2010 and is still pending before the ICJ, Costa Rica contested Nicaraguan military presence at Isla Calero, territory that Costa Rica claims as its own, in connection with the construction of a canal (see prior post discussing this case; see pleadings and related material here).

This latest ICJ dispute between the countries concerns a road constructed by Costa Rica parallel to the San Juan River between Los Chiles and the Delta region. According to some accounts, the road was constructed as a defensive measure against the possibility of an incursion by Nicaraguan troops (see story here). While the road runs solely on Costa Rican territory, Nicaragua contends that its construction resulted in harmful environmental effects on Nicaraguan territory—specifically silting of the San Juan River, erosion of the River banks, and harm to the surrounding ecosystem of wetlands and the Indio Maiz Biosphere Reserve.

In its complaint, Nicaragua asserts that the construction of the road, which began in July 2011, has already “resulted in dumping in the River of substantial volumes of sediments—soil, uprooted vegetation and felled trees.” It also argues that “the felling of trees and the removal of topsoil and vegetation close to the River bank facilitate erosion, and the leeching of even greater amounts of sediments into the river.” Ultimately, Nicaragua alleges that Costa Rica breached its international obligations by infringing on Nicaragua’s territorial integrity, damaging Nicaraguan territory, and violating general obligations in international law and relevant environmental conventions. In its request for relief, Nicaragua seeks restoration to the status quo ante, damages, and preparation and transmission of an appropriate transboundary environmental impact assessment (EIA).

In addressing this case, the Court is likely to refer to its 2005 decision in which it found that, while Costa Rica has rights to navigate the San Juan River, the river remains Nicaraguan territory (see 2005 decision here). Accordingly, the case could turn on whether Costa Rica’s construction of the river road caused transboundary environmental harm to Nicaragua, including the San Juan River. Based on prior decisions between the two nations, as well as international law, Costa Rica certainly is bound to respect and not harm the territory and environment of its neighbor (see e.g., 1858 Treaty on the Boundaries between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, the Cleveland Award of 1888 [English and Spanish], and the five Awards of the Umpire EP Alexander of September 30, 1897, December 20, 1897, March 22, 1898, July 26, 1899, and March 10, 1900).

Establishing a legal cause of action for transboundary harm, however, is typically dependent on showing a minimum level of harm. For example, both the UN Watercourses Convention and the UN International Law Commission’s Draft Articles on Transboundary Aquifers require harm to be substantial before it can be actionable. In the context of a transboundary watercourse, the UN International Law Commission asserted that significant harm occurs where the “harm exceed[ed] the parameters of what was usual in the relationship between the States that relied on the use of the waters for their benefit.” It also suggested that significant harm means “something more than ‘measurable’, but less than ‘serious’ or ‘substantial,’” and that an adverse effect or harm that is “not negligible but which yet did not necessarily rise to the level of ‘substantial’ or ‘important’” is considered “significant” (see footnote 123 and related text in my Article discussing the significant harm threshold). Whether Costa Rica’s actions rise to the level of significant harm remains to be seen.

As to the preparation and transmission of an EIA, the need for an EIA will depend on how the Court rules on the issue of significant harm. In the Case Concerning the Pulp Mills on the River Uruguay, the ICJ recognized that the practice of environmental impact assessment “has gained so much acceptance among States that it may now be considered a requirement under general international law to undertake an environmental impact assessment where there is a risk that the proposed industrial activity may have a significant adverse impact in a transboundary context, in particular, on a shared resource” (see Parag. 204 of the decision in the case). Hence, there first must be a determination that Costa Rica’s road building had the potential to result in a significant transboundary adverse impact before it can be argued that an EIA was required. It is noteworthy that the standard for mandating an EIA is lower than for finding an actionable injury: “may have a significant adverse impact” for the former, and “significant harm” for the latter.

On January 26, 2012, the Court issued time-limits for the two nations to file the initial pleadings in the dispute: December 19, 2012, and December 19, 2013, for Nicaragua and Costa Rica, respectively (see ICJ Press Release). In the interim, a group of environmentalists have challenged the Costa Rican government’s actions before the country’s Supreme Court and are seeking to enjoin the continued construction of the road (see story here).

As is often the case, the ICJ is in a unique position to provide guidance on an important legal matter, as well as a critical “real world” dispute.

Special thanks to law student Elana Katz-Mink, at American University’s Washington College of Law, for her invaluable assistance in developing this post.

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