Archive for the ‘Central America’ Category

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

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

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 23, 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.

Costa Rica Institutes Proceedings in ICJ against Nicaragua Over Río San Juan Conflict

Sunday, November 21st, 2010

On 18 November, Costa Rica instituted proceedings in the International Court of Justice [ICJ press release] against Nicaragua alleging unlawful “incursion into, occupation of and use by Nicaragua’s Army of Costa Rican territory as well as breaches of Nicaragua’s obligations towards Costa Rica” under a number of international treaties and conventions. The complaint focuses on the incursion of Nicaragua armed forces across the Río San Juan into territory that Costa Rica claims as its own.

According to Nicaraguan President, Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua is merely seeking to restore what is rightfully theirs. As reported in the Tico Times [here], Ortega stated: “In the 1600s and 1700s, the river covered an enormous amount of territory at its delta. And as the zone has dried, the river has moved and (Costa Rica) has continued to advance and take possession of terrain that doesn’t belong to it. The way things are going, if the San Juan River continues to move north and join with the Río Grande of Matagalpa (in the northern zone), that’s how far (Costa Rica) would claim its territory extended.” Ortega further asserted that “Nicaragua has the right to dredge the San Juan River to recover the flow of waters that existed in 1858, even if that affects the flow of water of other current recipients, such as the Colorado River.”The dispute, in fact, can be traced back more than 150 years to the 1858 Treaty on the Boundaries between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, which delimited the border along the Río San Juan. According to the treaty, while the southern bank of the river was declared Costa Rican territory, the river itself was given to Nicaragua. Costa Rica, however, was afforded the right to use the river for commerce.

Following disagreement over the interpretation of the treaty, the two countries agreed to have U.S. President Grover Cleveland arbitrate the dispute. In 1888, President Cleveland concluded (English and Spanish) that the border at the mouth of the Río San Juan lies at Punta de Castilla. Cleveland’s determination was later delineated more precisely in 1897 in the First award under the Convention between Costa Rica and Nicaragua of 8 April 1896 for the demarcation of the boundary between the two Republics.

Despite these rulings, the two countries continued to quarrel over both the location of the border between the two nations and the rights each enjoyed with respect to the use of the Río San Juan. In 2005, the dispute again came to the fore again when Costa Rica instituted proceedings in the ICJ [here] claiming that Nicaragua had unlawfully restricted Costa Rica’s right to navigate and access the Río San Juan by requiring passengers and tourists on Costa Rican vessels sailing on the river to obtain Nicaraguan visas. The ICJ ruled [here] against Nicaragua.

That decision, however, did not prevent Nicaragua from continuing to assert its claims to the river. In recent years, Nicaragua has been dredging older channels of the Río San Juan asserting that the border should follow the river as it flowed back in 1858 when the original Treaty on the Boundaries between Nicaragua and Costa Rica was adopted. Hence, the latest dispute. Interestingly enough, Nicaragua has also been working on a canal to link the Río San Juan and a nearby lagoon, which, at least one new source [Haaretz article] suggests is part of a larger, more ambitious plan by Venezuela, Iran and Nicaragua to create a “Nicaragua Canal” linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans that would rival the existing Panama Canal.

Notwithstanding, if Costa Rica has its way, the ICJ will focus solely on Nicaragua’s incursion, both its military and engineering activities, on Costa Rica soil. Considering President Ortega’s statements and Nicaragua’s claim to the watercourse as it flowed back in the 1850s, though, Nicaragua will likely challenge Costa Rica’s claim to sovereignty over the territory in question. That challenge will depend, in part, on the interpretation of the relevant treaties and prior determinations. However, taking President Ortega’s statements at face value, international law pertaining to migrating rivers also may be relevant.

Under international law, avulsive changes to a watercourse channel (abrupt changes due to storms and other natural phenomena) do not move a river-based boundary. The international frontier remains in the original channel, even if it no longer carries any water. In other words, countries neither gain nor lose territory when a river marking an international boundary changes its course due to avulsion. In contrast, gradual and natural changes to a watercourse’s channel, such as those produced by natural river flow and scouring, can impact a nation’s geographic range. Under international law, accretive changes can legally increase or decrease a state’s territory, notwithstanding the geographic location of an original river-based boundary. In essence, countries can gain or lose territory when the channel of a river marking an international boundary migrates due to accretion. The river channel, in its new or modified channel, remains the official boundary.

So, is Nicaragua entitled to the river as it flowed in the 1850s? Might they be legally entitled to the land they allegedly invaded? If the ICJ determines that the Río San Juan constitutes the official border, and that the main channel of the river has migrated from its 1858 location, and if the Court concludes that the river moved as a result of avulsion, then Nicaragua’s may have an argument. That, however, will not be easy to establish. Over 150 years have passed since the 1858 treaty. While Nicaragua may be able to produce maps and charts evidencing the channel’s location in the 1850s, establishing that its migration was due solely or predominantly to avulsion is another matter. Over the past decade alone, the region has suffered a number of hurricanes and earthquakes, each of which could have caused the river to move. Yet, over the past 150 years, the region has also experienced more typical climatic condition that could have caused the river channel to migrate in a more gradual fashion. If the river did in fact move from its 1850s location, the reality is that this migration was due to both accretive and avulsive phenomena. Nicaragua certainly has its work cut out. Of course, Costa Rica will have to be ready to disprove Nicaragua’s claims.

You can find additional information on this dispute, including a variety of charts and maps, as well as a discussion of the role that Google Earth has played in stoking the controversy, at Ogle Earth.