Home » Armed Conflict, International Law

More on the territorial dispute between Costa Rica and Nicaragua

Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla

Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla

A previous post noted how Google Maps might have exacerbated the Costa Rican/Nicaraguan dispute. Here’s more from the Miami Herald:

An aging border dispute over a jungle river dividing Nicaragua and Costa Rica has led to a standoff between heavily armed state security forces on a remote river island claimed by both nations.

Costa Rica claims that Nicaragua’s efforts to dredge the San Juan River, a Nicaraguan waterway that parallels the border between the two countries, has “flagrantly” crossed into Costa Rican territory.

It’s a claim Nicaragua categorically denies.

In an address to the nation, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla accused the Nicaraguan Army of occupying a swath of Costa Rican territory called Isla Calero, a large and uninhabited river island in a remote area 18.6 miles inland from the Caribbean Sea.

Chinchilla called Nicaragua’s alleged military incursion an act of “aggression” against a country without an army and rapidly deployed Costa Rican police armed with military-grade weapons to the contested area.

The president claims Nicaraguan soldiers have build field camps, felled trees, dumped river silt and hoisted the Nicaraguan flag over Costa Rican territory.

“This is a serious violation of our sovereignty and our territorial integrity,” she said.

Nicaragua’s Sandinista government, meanwhile, claims Costa Rica has invaded its territory. President Daniel Ortega, in his own address to the nation this week accused Costa Rica of threatening Nicaragua with “elite troops” dressed like “Rambo.”

Though Costa Rica officially has no military, its annual defense budget is nearly three times that of Nicaragua.

Costa Rica and Nicaragua both point to the same historic documents — the 1858 Cañas-Jerez Treaty and a subsequent clarification of that treaty from 1888 — as evidence to support their interpretations of where the border lies.

But the original treaty describes the frontier in a wordy, seven-page description of landmarks and wandering coordinates — all written in longhand.

The two countries are also fighting over the way modern maps interpret the treaties.

Costa Rica called on Google Wednesday to fix its satellite map, which indicates the disputed land belongs to Nicaragua. That prompted Nicaragua’s foreign ministry to write Google on Thursday, telling the company the map is fine the wayit is and not to touch a thing.

Ortega accused Costa Rica of plotting to steal the Nicaraguan river, much as Costa Rica appropriated the former Nicaraguan territories of Guanacaste and Nicoya 185 years ago. He insisted that a 2009 ruling by the International Court of Justice at The Hague gives his country the right to dredge the San Juan River and restore its historic water flow to the way it was in 1858.

Over the past 150 years, Ortega alleges, accumulated river sediment has dried the southern part of the San Juan’s historic delta, pushing the mouth of the river increasingly northward.

However, he said, just because the historic delta has dried doesn’t mean Nicaragua has forfeited its territory. Ortega said Nicaragua is simply exercising its long neglected right to reclaim land it owns.

In an attempt to defuse a potentially dangerous situation over the suspicious silt, Costa Rica appealed to the Organization of American States, which took the matter up Wednesday in a special meeting of its permanent council.

OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza is scheduled to travel to both Costa Rica and Nicaragua this weekend to meet with the two presidents in an effort to arrange a dialogue between them.

Calming tensions, however, could be difficult. Nationalistic chest-puffing on both sides of the border has fanned the flames. Online forums such as Facebook and Twitter and newspaper columns have been abuzz with impassioned calls to national defense and provocative characterizations of those living on the other side of the border.

Politicians also have been eager to play the patriotic card.

Costa Rican commentators accuse Ortega of using the border issue as a smoke screen to distract Nicaraguan voters from his questionable efforts to get himself reelected next year, despite a constitutional ban.

But former Nicaraguan guerrilla leader Edén Pastora, who is heading the Sandinista government’s river-dredging project, says it is Costa Rica’s Chinchilla who is manipulating the border conflict to defuse opposition to controversial moves by her administration.

Meanwhile, Pastora told a local Nicaraguan TV channel that the dredging of the river is “unstoppable.”


Share/Bookmark this!

Leave a reply

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also subscribe to these comments via RSS.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

This is a Gravatar-enabled weblog. To get your own globally recognized avatar, please register at Gravatar.


Connect: LinkedIn profile Connect: Twitter profile
Connect: LinkedIn profile

Welcome! Who am I?



Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.