For the past four years, Costa Rica and Nicaragua have been embroiled in a dispute over the San Juan River, which runs between the two countries. Fishermen, tour boat operators and pleasure boaters from both countries have, for many years, shared the river relatively peacefully, although undercurrents of conflict have existed for two centuries.
The Cañas-Jerez treaty of April 15, 1858 demarcated the border between the two countries. Under the treaty, the San Juan River belongs to Nicaragua, and the border runs along the Costa Rican side of the river. However, Nicaragua recently argued that its possession of the river allowed it to control river traffic as well. The Nicaraguan government refused to allow Costa Rican law enforcement officials to patrol the river. In addition, Nicaragua demanded that passengers on river boats have Nicaraguan tourist visas, arguing that these passengers needed to purchase tourist passes in order to travel along the river. Costa Rica argued that its commercial and police vessels had a right to freely navigate the San Juan River. Conflict escalated.
On September 29, 2005, Costa Rica took its case to the United Nations’ International Court of Justice in The Hague. At issue was the interpretation of the Cañas-Jerez treaty. Costa Rica claimed that the treaty did not allow Nicaragua to restrict navigation of Costa Rican police along the river and that such restriction violated the 1858 treaty.
On July 13, 2009, the court reached a decision in Costa Rica v. Nicaragua, granting most of the demands of the Costa Rican government. The court recognized the right of Costa Rican tour and passenger boats to freely navigate the river for commercial purposes. Passengers on these boats do not have to procure Nicaraguan tourist visas. In addition, Costa Ricans can use the river for daily transportation requirements—to ferry children to and from school, to deliver food and other necessities to people living in the region and for subsistence fishing.
Interestingly, Costa Rica lost on the one issue it originally brought before the court—whether Costa Rican police had the right to patrol the river. The court held that Costa Rican police had no right to this activity. In addition, Costa Rica can no longer use the river to transport weapons or supplies to police stations in the San Juan River region. The court also granted Nicaragua the right to inspect Costa Rican ships and their passengers at various predetermined checkpoints along the river.
On the whole, Costa Rica is satisfied with the decision, and Costa Ricans hope that tension in the San Juan River area will dissipate.
Read about Costa Rica v. Nicaragua in La Nación.
Read the International Court of Justice’s complete decision in Costa Rica v. Nicaragua.
Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.