When Nicaragua took Colombia to court in 2001 over a decades-long dispute concerning a handful of small islands in the Caribbean, the Colombians felt they had little to lose. They had exerted sovereignty over the territories and their waters, which lie about 400 km (250 miles) north of South America and 200 km east of Nicaragua, since the signing of a treaty in 1928. In 1980, shortly after the , Nicaragua claimed the treaty was invalid, and it later brought the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. But by that point, the two countries’ maritime border had long been recognised as the 82nd meridian.
However, after studying the case for 11 years, the court issued a ruling on November 19th that left Colombians stunned. Although it confirmed the country’s sovereignty over seven tiny islets that form part of the San Andrés and Providencia archipelago, it granted Nicaragua a maritime economic exclusion zone extending 200 nautical miles (370 km) from its Caribbean coast, with the exception of the waters immediately surrounding the islands. That constituted a transfer of about 30,000 square miles (75,000 square km) of sea previously controlled by Colombia, with valuable fishing rights and potentially underwater oil deposits. It transformed two tiny uninhabited Colombian islands, Quitasueño and Serrana, into isolated enclaves, and left the rest of the Colombian archipelago jutting into Nicaragua’s newly expanded waters. The islands’ inhabitants, who are used to fishing in what are now Nicaraguan waters, say they fear for their livelihoods.The ruling cannot be appealed.
Nicaragua celebrated the ruling by dispatching ships to patrol its new waters. “By now [the navy has] established sovereignty in that whole territory,” said Daniel Ortega, the president. But Juan Manuel Santos, his Colombian counterpart, was in no mood to concede. He refused to withdraw his country’s navy, and said the ruling was filled with “omissions, mistakes, excesses [and] inconsistencies that we cannot accept.”
On November 28th he went further, when Colombia announced its withdrawal from the —an agreement signed in Colombia’s own capital in 1948—in which the countries of the Americas agreed to settle any disputes peacefully through the ICJ. Mr Santos argued that territorial and maritime borders should be established in the future through treaties, rather than by the court. “Never again should we have to face what happened to us on November 19th,” he said.
Mr Santos has not said publicly whether he intends to abide by the ruling. He has sought to distinguish himself from his predecessor and former political patron, Álvaro Uribe, by emphasising good relations with Colombia’s neighbours and maintaining a strict adherence to the letter of the law throughout his administration. Both of those efforts could be undermined by a prolonged spat with Nicaragua. Tensions with Mr Ortega could even threaten Mr Santos’s top priority—the ongoing —since the Venezuelan government, Mr Ortega’s closest ally, is facilitating the negotiations and Cuba, another friend of Nicaragua’s, is hosting them.
However, Mr Uribe has Mr Santos of being soft on the country’s enemies, and the Colombian public was outraged by the ruling. Many Colombians still smart over the , which was once a Colombian province, in 1903. In an opinion poll published on November 29th, 85% of respondents said the government should reject the ruling, even if it means there is a risk of a military confrontation with Nicaragua. It will require all the political savvy Mr Santos can muster to keep his countrymen’s belligerent passions at bay.