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Judicial controversies as an expression of Caribbean geopolitics

Geopolitics has been reserved for decades to military academies, so it has had to evolve in governmental and academic environments as a suitable method to interpret classic international conflict –including battles for consolidating power, to the control of financial, and natural resources– to understand the conflicts of today, dimensioned by religions, ethnic conflict, the environmental, climate change, terrorism, and cyberattacks. In times of globalization, States have to adjust their internal policies to what occurs outside of their borders.

Controversies in the Caribbean

The geopolitics of the oceans is organized around distributing maritime space, controlling strategic passes, fighting for the control of natural resources, and consolidating the power of States, especially through naval fleets.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), not ratified by Colombia, is a judicial referral to establish the coastal lines, attributed to exercising certain rights by the States: territorial sea, contiguous zones, exclusive economic zone, and the continental platform.

To traditional uses of marine resources, such as hydrocarbon exploitation and growth of trade, there are now –with the development of new technologies– the extended use of containers, deep-sea drilling, cultural resources, and exploitation of polymetallic nodules shortly.

The Caribbean is a region that has a great number of controversies filed with the ICJ, indicating the geopolitical importance of this part of the world.

Read more: Delimitation of other States may impact litigation with Colombia (In Spanish)

In the ‘80s, Nicaragua sued the United States in a highly publicized case; before Honduras sued Nicaragua for the interpretation of an arbitral ruling provided by the King of Spain in 1906.

More recently, Nicaragua sued Honduras twice for the territorial and maritime dispute for armed actions on the border and has also sued Costa Rica twice for trans-border armed actions and for building a route along the San Juan River.

Costa Rica did the same to Nicaragua four times for navigation rights, border region activities, maritime delimitation in the Caribbean and the Pacific, and for the border dispute with Portillos Island.

Nicaragua has been an intervener in two litigations between El Salvador and Honduras. Guatemala has sued Belize for territorial, insular y maritime revindication.

Nicaragua has sued Colombia three times. The first time for a territorial and maritime dispute, producing a ruling in November of 2012. The second used a mistaken mechanism, for alleged breaches of sovereign rights in maritime areas of the Caribbean, whose hearing will be held in September and October. The third case is related to the pretension of Nicaragua to an extended continental platform.

In total there are 16 cases. The historic evolution of controversies filed with the ICJ, allows us to conclude 3 things:

  1. All the controversies are related to the sea or in a direct, or indirect relationship with the sea, expressing the dynamics that look to configure maritime areas in the Caribbean of the 21st century.
  2. The judicial and diplomatic activism of Nicaragua –which seems implicated in all processes, except for the case between Guatemala Vs. Belize– shows a consistent geopolitical project in forwarding and propitiating litigation with all its neighbors with the clear intention of extending its maritime areas, for which it develops a clear litigious activity, and exploits the ICJ, agitated for several years by an improbable interoceanic channel in their territory.
  3. Although we need to admit that the States dispose of certain discretionality to file processes with the ICJ, observing the issue with realism, the geopolitics for States consists of the possibility of imposing but also not accepting be imposed –in the case of Colombia– some judicial controversies with uncertain results where it has nothing to lose or nothing much to gain.

Extended continental platform

With the Ruling of 2012, the ICJ only agreed that certain structures emerged, based on some articles of the UNCLOS, that say that an island should serve for human habitation or its economic activity. However, in the case of the Meridional China Sea, promoted by the Philippines against China, the Permanent Court of Arbitration of The Hague carried out in July of 2016 an extensive island criteria interpretation, showing the still existing uncertainties and voids in international sea law.

Read more: The dilemmas of Colombia regarding the Convention of UNESCO Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage (In Spanish)

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Popular Republic of China solemnly declared that that ruling was null and without effect, lacking compelling force and that China would not accept, or acknowledge the ruling. The Chinese State maintained that its territorial sovereignty and its maritime rights and interests in the meridional Chinese Sea are not, in any case, affected by the ruling of the court.

The pretension of Nicaragua for an extended continental platform against an exclusive economic zone of Colombia is similar to the pretensions of China and South Korea, also for an extended continental platform on the Japanese archipelago of Ryukyu. The UNCLOS does not mention that at all, opening the uncertainties.

If the pretension of Nicaragua prospers, a maritime arc would extend in their favor throughout the Caribbean, impacting the interests of other countries and breaking the fragile geopolitical balance of the region in the face of the third millennium, which has been said to be maritime.

In conclusion, the development of a geopolitical vision from the State is necessary to try to understand the complex fabric of all judicial controversies and their potential to operate, not only at the international law level but also from geopolitical level, in an eventual reconfiguration of maritime space in the Caribbean, to the detriment of the maritime area of Colombia. A geopolitical vision could have helped to be more strategic in the form of anticipating and facing the ruling of 2012, to pull the rug from underneath Nicaragua. Furthermore, it can also contribute to the strategies to face what will come with the process of a pretended extended continental platform.

The geopolitical vision also serves to build large-scale projects to provide cohesion to the country beyond the differences in domestic politics, such as building a channel through Colombia connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Consejo Editorial