ICJ Judgment in Costa Rica v. Nicaragua 13 Jul 2009
The International Court of Justice reaffirmed Costa Rica's right to free navigation on the San Juan River, as well as Nicaragua's right of regulation.

On Monday 13 July 2009, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) delivered its Judgment in the case concerning the Dispute regarding Navigational and Related Rights (Costa Rica v. Nicaragua), on a section of the San Juan River regulated by the 1858 Treaty of Limits.

The San Juan river, between Costa Rica and NicaraguaIt was not contested that the section of the San Juan River belongs to Nicaragua, since the border lies on the Costa Rican bank, with Costa Rica possessing a right of free navigation. However, the parties differed as to the precise extent of those rights. In its Application, Costa Rica claimed that Nicaragua had violated no less than nine obligations, including the obligation to allow Costa Rican vessels and their passengers to navigate freely on the River, not to impose charges or fees, and other obligations concerning the non-imposition of impediments to these rights.

The ICJ found, inter alia, that Costa Rica has the right of free navigation on the San Juan River for purposes of commerce, including the transport of passengers and tourists. The Court also found that Nicaragua can impose regulations, such as the obligation for Costa Rican vessels to stop at the first and last Nicaraguan river post on their route, or the obligation for passengers of these vessels to carry a passport or an identity card.

Reasoning of the Court

The Court ruled that the 1858 Treaty of Limits between Costa Rica and Nicaragua “completely defines the rules applicable to the section of the San Juan river […] in respect of navigation”. The treaty grants Costa Rica “a perpetual right of free navigation ‘con objetos de comercio.’” While the parties did not agree on the meaning of this last expression, the Court gave way to the Costa Rican interpretation that “con objetos de comercio” means “for the purposes of commerce”, and not only “with articles [for trade]” as Nicaragua had contended. Accordingly, the Court found that the right of free navigation applies to the transport of persons. However, the ICJ also ruled that official vessels, for example carrying out police functions, did not enjoy a right of free navigation.

Additionally, the Court affirmed the right of Nicaragua to regulate navigation on this section of the River. In particular, the Court affirmed Nicaragua’s sovereign right to know the identity of persons entering its territory, the power to require a passport, or the right to prohibit night time navigation. However, it denied Nicaragua’s right to impose a visa requirement on those persons benefiting from Costa Rica’s right of free navigation, or the payment of charges through “departure clearance certificates”.

Proceedings before the ICJ

The International Court of Justice at the Peace Palace, The HagueCosta Rica had filed an Application before the Court on 29 September 2005, claiming that Nicaragua imposed a number of restrictions on the navigation of Costa Rican boats and their passengers on the San Juan River in violation of the Treaty of Limits. In its counter-claims, Nicaragua argued that there had either been no breach of the provisions of the Treaty of Limits, or, where appropriate, that the obligations claimed to have been breached did not form obligations under the Treaty.

As a basis for the ICJ’s jurisdiction, Costa Rica has invoked the declarations of acceptance of the Court’s jurisdiction made by Costa Rica and Nicaragua, as well as the 2002 Tovar Caldera Agreement and the 1948 Pact of Bogotá. Nicaragua has not raised any objection against the jurisdiction of the Court.

After the Memorial of Costa Rica and the Counter-Memorial of Nicaragua were filed before the Court, as well as a subsequent Reply and Rejoinder, hearings in the case were held from 2 to 12 March 2009 at the Peace Palace in The Hague.

Press release
Dispute regarding Navigational and Related Rights (Costa Rica v. Nicaragua)

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