Saturday, April 28, 2012

Drawing Lines in the Sea

San Andres Island: Disputed territory.
Colombia and Nicaragua are in the International Court of the Hague arguing over the ownership of some tiny keys and a patch of water in the western Caribbean.

It's a long-running dispute, with roots going back to Spanish colonial records of the early 1800s. The court's decision, which could be many months away, will affect fishing rights in the area and possibly underwater petroleum resources. But the biggest thing riding on control of a speck of territory almost nobody's visited is undoubtedly national pride.

Lines of dispute. 
Nicaragua still claims control of the whole archipelago, a stereotypical tropical island paradise consisting of San Andres, Providencia and Santa Catalina. But in a preliminary 2007 ruling the court said they were part of Colombia. And it'd be completely unimaginable for Colombia to hand over the islands, where Colombia has made great efforts to establish its sovereignety and which form an important part of the national identity.

Colombia bases its legal case mainly on two documents: an 1803 decree by the Spanish crown making the islands - and also Nicaragua's Mosquito Coast - part of La Nueva Granada, Colombia's colonial antecessor. That decree was rescinded just three years later, so it doesn't mean much. But it's something.

San Andres and Providencia islands.
A long, long, way from home. 
In 1928 Colombia and Nicaragua signed a treaty recognizing Colombia's sovereignety over the San Andres archipelago. Nicaragua argues it signed that treaty under duress, since it was actually occuppied by American troops at the time, and Washington felt indebted to Colombia for having taken away Panama. So, the Nicaraguans are right that the 1928 treaty can carry little legal or moral weight.

But Colombia has occupied and exercised sovereignty over the archipelago for many decades.

Additionally, in 1822 the islands' residents voluntarily adhered to Colombia, and in 1903 they rejected a U.S. invitation to become part of the U.S., both of which seem like strong signs of allegiance to Bogotá.

Nicaragua, on the other hand, rests its claims mostly on geography: the islands are lots closer to the Nicaraguan coast. But, applying a geography test to the whole world would result in wholesale and impossible reshuffling of territories.

In today's world, it's just not going to happen.

Colombian officials have said that if the Hague court gives some of those keys and reefs to Nicaragua, Bogotá will accept the ruling.

That might be the best outcome. Colombia keeps the archipelago, which it would in any case, and Nicaragua recovers a bit of national pride, and fishing rights.

This article lays out the case for Nicaragua.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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