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World court: Colombia loses swath of sea but keeps islands in dispute with Nicaragua

The International Court in The Hague ratified Colombia’s rights over San Andres and Providencia islands, but gave Nicaragua a larger piece of the Caribbean. Colombia says it will challenge ruling.


BOGOTA -- Colombia lost a large swath of the Caribbean but kept a series of far-flung islands that had been at the heart of a long-running dispute with Nicaragua.

The International Court of Justice on Monday redrew the maritime boundaries of the two nations in a decision that’s likely to have a long-ranging impact on fishing, mineral and petroleum rights in the region.

The new map gives Colombia access to its tourist-haven islands of San Andres and Providencia through a wide channel that juts into Nicaragua’s new maritime boundaries. But it also leaves two smaller uninhabited keys, Quitasueño and Serrana, as Colombian enclaves in Nicaraguan waters.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos praised the court for recognizing the nation’s sovereignty over the islands but “emphatically rejected” the new maritime boundaries.

“We are not going to rule out any resource or mechanism available to us through international law to defend our rights,” Santos told the nation Monday night. “The government respects the law but believes the court has incurred in a series of errors.”

While the dispute goes back to at least 1913, Nicaragua brought the case to The Hague in 2001. In its filing, the country asked for control of some of the islands and to have its maritime rights extended east of San Andres. Colombia maintained that its maritime boundary was well west of the archipelago, along the 82 meridian.

In the short-term, the decision may have the biggest impact on Colombia’s fishing fleet, which will now have to ply through Nicaraguan waters to reach the fishing grounds around Quitasueño and Serrana.

Despite not having all its demands met, Nicaragua hailed the ruling as victory.

“Colombia was acting like it was the owner of these islands and like it was owner of all the maritime territory, and the court told them ‘No, that’s not how it is,’” Nicaragua’s court representative Carlos Arguello told the country’s national television channel, according to the Associated Press. “We’ve been given very important maritime territory.”

The ruling gave Nicaragua “incredible potential wealth and future exploitation of fisheries and other resources, such as minerals,” he said. “That’s what we were seeking and that’s what resulted.”

The ruling sparked calls for Colombia’s representative before The Hague, Julio Londoño Paredes, to step down. But Londoño said the decision had saved the islands of San Andres and Providencia from being trapped in Nicaraguan waters.

Even so, former Foreign Minister Noemi Sanín called the ruling a “sad day for the country.” And Juan Lozano. a senator from the ruling U Party, told ET television that the government needed to explore all its legal options before accepting the ruling.

“We can’t just stand here with our arms crossed,” he said.

The picturesque archipelago is one of the gems of Colombia’s tourist industry and a matter of national pride, but it’s worlds apart from mainland Colombia. Settled in the 17th Century, many of the inhabitants of San Andres and Providencia speak English as their native language.

Santos said he would hold a cabinet meeting on San Andres Tuesday to study the country’s alternatives.

“You can be sure that we will respect the law,” Santos said, “but we will also firmly defend the rights of all Colombians.”