A preliminary ruling today by the International Court of Justice on a tense border conflict between Costa Rica and Nicaragua is allowing both sides to claim victory and helping to defuse – at least for the moment – a high-stakes showdown that many feared would end in violence.
Tuesday’s ruling calls for both sides to withdraw all troops, police, and security personnel from a 1.2-square-mile contested border region, but does not prevent Nicaragua from continuing to dredge its San Juan River, which parallels the two country’s border. The high court calls on both sides to “refrain from any action that might aggravate or extend the dispute before the court or make it more difficult to resolve.”
Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla called it a fair and “overwhelming victory” for her country in using law to repel aggressors. Yet Nicaragua is also claiming victory. Carlos Argüello, Nicaragua’s representative before The Hague, told state media that the ruling is satisfactory because it blocks Costa Rica’s alleged “offensive” against Nicaraguan sovereignty.
The preliminary ruling is meant as a stopgap measure in a lengthy legal process expected to take another four years before reaching final verdict. While it allows all sides to save face, it may do little to mend the damaged relations between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, thus allowing the embers of mutual mistrust to continue burning.
Costa Rica gets tough
Last October, Costa Rica contended that Nicaraguan soldiers had “invaded” its territory and destroyed part of its protected wetlands in an effort to dredge its river. Nicaragua, meanwhile, insisted its troops were always on its side of the border and said the environmental damage caused by the dredging effort was negligible.
As tensions escalated last November, Costa Rica, which abolished its army 62 years ago, sent some 2,000 police officers to reinforce security along the border. It also equipped its border region with security cameras and trained a new crack battalion of special forces that was to be deployed to the border region this week in the event of a negative ruling from The Hague.
Nicaragua, meanwhile, refused to withdraw its troops – reportedly less than two dozen were stationed in the disputed swampland region – or end its river-dredging operation, despite Costa Rica’s impassioned behest. Nicaragua insisted that Costa Rica’s efforts to halt the dredging and force its troop withdrawal are part of its neighbor’s alleged expansionist pretensions to steal its territory and natural resources.
'More questions than answers'
The Nicaraguan Army has said it will respect The Hague’s ruling, despite its apparent contradiction with the Sandinista party's slogan of “Not One Step Backwards!” As of Tuesday afternoon, President Daniel Ortega had not yet addressed the ruling or made any public appearance.
“Ortega will call this a victory because it doesn’t require him to do anything,” says opposition lawmaker Francisco Aguirre, president of the legislative commission on foreign affairs. Indeed, Nicaraguan officials claim they have already removed troops from the disputed area and that the dredging operation has already concluded and moved upriver.
But the public may not be as content as the politicians, who spent months rallying their troops and whipping up a media frenzy.
“This whole thing leaves me with more questions than answers, and as a Costa Rican I feel mocked. We can’t defend ourselves with arms and it appears that diplomacy only half-works,” writes Daniel Jimenez on the message board of Costa Rican daily La Nación.