V. ICJ Cases relating to the Law of the Sea, Maritime and Territorial Disputes, and Freedom of Navigation (1984 – 2017)

This is the fifth in a series of blog posts, categorizing ICJ decisions as it relates to a particular theme, using the summaries provided in the ICJ website. Other themes will include, decisions on human rights/humanitarian law, immunities and consular rights, soverignty, treaty interpretation, on the use of force, cases where the ICJ refused to exercise its jurisdiction, or where proceedings were discontinued by parties. These summaries are not intended to be comprehensive. It is intended to give an overview on the ICJ’s deliberations in that case, as it relates to the topic. The list is not yet comprehensive, and other cases will continue to be added.

1. Territorial and Maritime Dispute (Nicaragua v. Colombia) Judgment of 19 November 2012

Excerpts of the summary provided in the ICJ website:

On 6 December 2001, the Republic of Nicaragua filed an Application instituting proceedings against the Republic of Colombia in respect of a dispute concerning “a group of related legal issues subsisting” between the two States “concerning title to territory and maritime delimitation” (…) (The Court rejected requests for intervention by Costa Rica and Hungary).

In its Judgment rendered on the merits of the case on 19 November 2012, the Court found that the territorial dispute between the Parties concerned sovereignty over the features situated in the Caribbean Sea (…) (this section is further set out here).

With respect to Nicaragua’s claim for delimitation of a continental shelf extending beyond 200 nautical miles, the Court observed that “any claim of continental shelf rights beyond 200 miles [by a State party to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)] must be in accordance with Article 76 of UNCLOS and reviewed by the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf”. Given the object and purpose of UNCLOS, as stipulated in its Preamble, the fact that Colombia was not a party thereto did not relieve Nicaragua of its obligations under Article 76 of that Convention (…)

In order to effect the delimitation of the maritime boundary (within 200 nautical miles of the Nicaraguan coast), the Court first determined what the relevant coasts of the Parties were, namely those coasts the projections of which overlapped (…)

To effect the delimitation, the Court followed the three-stage procedure previously laid down by and employed in its jurisprudence.

First, it selected the base points and constructed a provisional median line between the Nicaraguan coast and the western coasts of the relevant Colombian islands opposite the Nicaraguan coast.

Second, the Court considered any relevant circumstances which might have called for an adjustment or shifting of the provisional median line so as to achieve an equitable result. It observed that the substantial disparity between the relevant Colombian coast and that of Nicaragua (approximately 1:8.2), and the need to avoid a situation whereby the line of delimitation cut off one or other of the Parties ties from maritime areas into which its coasts projected, constituted relevant circumstances. The Court noted that, while legitimate security concerns had to be borne in mind in determining what adjustment should be made to the provisional median line or in what way that line should be shifted, the conduct of the Parties, issues of access to natural resources and delimitations already effected in the area were not relevant circumstances in this case (…)

Third, and finally, the Court checked that, taking account of all the circumstances of the case, the delimitation thus obtained did not create a disproportionality that would render the result inequitable. The Court observed that the boundary line had the effect of dividing the relevant area between the Parties in a ratio of approximately 1:3.44 in Nicaragua’s favour, while the ratio of relevant coasts was approximately 1:8.2. It concluded that that line did not entail such disproportionality as to create an inequitable result.

NB: Nicaragua welcomed the judgement. However, the President of Colombo rejected it, stating that: “The borders between nations cannot be in the hands of a court of law,…They must be drawn by agreement between the countries involved.” He announced that Colombia will leave the 1948 Pact of Bogotá. Under Article XXXI of the Pact of Bogotá, parties recognize that it is bound by the compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJ in relation to the four matters specified therein. The judgement was delivered on 19 November 2012, Colombia expressed its intention to denounce the Pact on 27 November 2012.

The two countries continue to dispute over parts of the sea apportioned by the ICJ, and on 16 September 2016, and 26 November 2013, Nicaragua again submitted two applications before the ICJ asking it to settle the boundary beyond 200nm fixed by the 2012 judgement, and on a “dispute concern[ing] the violations of Nicaragua’s sovereign rights and maritime zones declared by the Court’s Judgment of 19 November 2012 and the threat of the use of force by Colombia in order to implement these violations.” Because the denunciation takes one year to come into effect, the Pact of Bogotá remained in force for Colombia until 27 November 2013. The Court upheld its jurisdiction to consider these cases. The Colombia President subsequently stated that Colombia will not accept a ruling by a third party and will not “participate” in the case. 

2. Dispute regarding Navigational and Related Rights (Costa Rica v. Nicaragua) Judgement 13 July 2009

Excerpts of the summary provided in the ICJ website:

On 29 September 2005, Costa Rica filed an Application instituting proceedings against Nicaragua in a dispute concerning the navigational and related rights of Costa Rica on a section of the San Juan River, the southern bank of which forms the boundary between the two States provided for by an 1858 bilateral treaty. In its Application, Costa Rica affirmed that “Nicaragua has — in particular since the late 1990s — imposed a number of restrictions on the navigation of Costa Rican boats and their passengers on the San Juan River”, in violation of Article VI of the 1858 Treaty, which “granted to Nicaragua sovereignty over the waters of the San Juan River, recognizing at the same time important rights to Costa Rica” (…)

As regards Costa Rica’s navigational rights on the San Juan River under the 1858 Treaty, in that part where navigation is common, the Court ruled that Costa Rica had the right of free navigation on the San Juan River for purposes of commerce (and provided in detail these rights) (…) that Costa Rica had the right of navigation on the San Juan River with official vessels used solely, in specific situations, to provide essential services for the inhabitants of the riparian areas where expeditious transportation is a condition for meeting the inhabitants’ requirements; that Costa Rica did not have the right of navigation on the San Juan River with vessels carrying out police functions ; that Costa Rica did not have the right of navigation on the San Juan River for the purposes of the exchange of personnel among the police border posts along the right bank of the river or for the re-supply of these posts, with official equipment, including service arms and ammunition.

As regards Nicaragua’s right to regulate navigation on the San Juan River, in that part where navigation is common, the Court found that Nicaragua had the right to require Costa Rican vessels and their passengers to stop at the first and last Nicaraguan post on their route along the San Juan River; that Nicaragua had the right to require persons travelling on the San Juan River to carry a passport or an identity document ; that Nicaragua had the right to issue departure clearance certificates to Costa Rican vessels exercising Costa Rica’s right of free navigation but did not have the right to request the payment of a charge for the issuance of such certificates ; that Nicaragua had the right to impose timetables for navigation on vessels navigating on the San Juan River ; and that Nicaragua had the right to require Costa Rican vessels fitted with masts or turrets to display the Nicaraguan flag.

As regards subsistence fishing, the Court found that fishing by the inhabitants of the Costa Rican bank of the San Juan River for subsistence purposes from that bank must be respected by Nicaragua as a customary right.

As regards Nicaragua’s compliance with its international obligations under the 1858 Treaty, the Court found that Nicaragua was not acting in accordance with its obligations under the 1858 Treaty when it required persons travelling on the San Juan River on board Costa Rican vessels exercising Costa Rica’s right of free navigation to obtain Nicaraguan visas; that Nicaragua was not acting in accordanc with its obligations under the 1858 Treaty when it required persons travelling on the San Juan River on board Costa Rican vessels exercising Costa Rica’s right of free navigation to purchase Nicaraguan tourist cards; and that Nicaragua was not acting in accordance with its obligations under the 1858 Treaty when it required the operators of vessels exercising Costa Rica’s right of free navigation to pay charges for departure clearance certificates.”

3. Maritime Delimitation in the Black Sea (Romania v. Ukraine) Judgement 03 February 2009

Excerpts of the summary provided in the ICJ website:

On 16 September 2004, Romania filed an Application instituting proceedings against Ukraine in respect of a dispute concerning “the establishment of a single maritime boundary between the two States in the Black Sea, thereby delimiting the continental shelf and the exclusive economic zones appertaining to them” (…)

On the basis of established State practice and of its own jurisprudence, the Court declared itself bound by the three-step approach laid down by maritime delimitation law, which consisted (1) first of establishing a provisional equidistance line, (2) then of considering factors which might call for an adjustment of that line and adjusting it accordingly and, (3) finally, of confirming that the line thus adjusted would not lead to an inequitable result by comparing the ratio of coastal lengths with the ratio of relevant maritime areas.

In keeping with this approach, the Court first established a provisional equidistance line. In order to do so, it was obliged to determine appropriate base points. After examining at length the characteristics of each base point chosen by the Parties for the establishment of the provisional equidistance line, the Court decided to use the Sacalin Peninsula and the landward end of the Sulina dyke on the Romanian coast, and Tsyganka Island, Cape Tarkhankut and Cape Khersones on the Ukrainian coast. It considered it inappropriate to select any base points on Serpents’ Island (belonging to Ukraine). The Court then proceeded to establish the provisional equidistance line (…)

The Court then turned to the examination of relevant circumstances which might call for an adjustment of the provisional equidistance line, considering six potential factors : (1) the possible disproportion between coastal lengths ; (2) the enclosed nature of the Black Sea and the delimitations already effected in the region ; (3) the presence of Serpents’ Island in the area of delimitation ; (4) the conduct of the Parties (oil and gas concessions, fishing activities and naval patrols) ; (5) any potential curtailment of the continental shelf or exclusive economic zone entitlement of one of the Parties ; and (6) certain security considerations of the Parties. The Court did not see in these various factors any reason that would justify the adjustment of the provisional equidistance line. In particular with respect to Serpents’ Island, it considered that it should have no effect on the delimitation other than that stemming from the role of the 12-nautical-mile arc of its territorial sea.

Finally, the Court confirmed that the line would not lead to an inequitable result by comparing the ratio of coastal lengths with the ratio of relevant maritime areas. The Court noted that the ratio of the respective coastal lengths for Romania and Ukraine was approximately 1:2.8 and the ratio of the relevant maritime areas was approximately 1:2.1.

The new maritime boundary determined by the ICJ indicated in a purple line (@bbc). The two countries agreed to be bound by the purple boundary line.

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4. Territorial and Maritime Dispute between Nicaragua and Honduras in the Caribbean Sea (Nicaragua v. Honduras) Judgement 8 October 2007

Excerpts of the summary provided in the ICJ website:

“On 8 December 1999, the Republic of Nicaragua filed an Application instituting proceedings against the Republic of Honduras in respect of a dispute concerning the delimitation of the maritime zones appertaining to each of those States in the Caribbean Sea (…)

In respect of sovereignty over the islands of Bobel Cay, Savanna Cay, Port Royal Cay and South Cay, located in the area in dispute, the Court concluded that it had not been established that either Honduras or Nicaragua had title to those islands by virtue of uti possidetis juris. Having then sought to identify any post-colonial effectivités, the Court found that sovereignty over the islands belonged to Honduras, as it had shown that it had applied and enforced its criminal and civil law, had regulated immigration, fisheries activities and building activity and had exercised its authority in respect of public works there.

As for the delimitation of the maritime areas between the two States, the Court found that no established boundary existed along the 15th parallel on the basis of either uti possidetis juris or a tacit agreement between the Parties. It thus proceeded to determine the delimitation itself. (For the methodology used by the ICJ in the delimitation, click here) (…)

The Court further instructed the Parties to negotiate in good faith with a view to agreeing on the course of a line between the present endpoint of the land boundary and the starting-point of the maritime boundary thus determined. In respect of the endpoint of the maritime boundary, the Court stated that the line which it had drawn continued until it reached the area where the rights of certain third States might be affected.”

NB: Both Honduras and Nicaragua agreed to abide by the decision of the Court.

5. Oil Platforms (Islamic Republic of Iran v. United States of America) Judgment, 6 November 2003 on freedom of navigation.

Excerpts of the summary provided in the ICJ website:

“On 2 November 1992, the Islamic Republic of Iran filed in the Registry of the Court an Application instituting proceedings against the United States of America with respect to the destruction of Iranian oil platforms. The Islamic Republic founded the jurisdiction of the Court upon a provision of the Treaty of Amity, Economic Relations and Consular Rights between Iran and the United States, signed at Tehran on 15 August 1955. In its Application, Iran alleged that the destruction caused by several warships of the United States Navy, in October 1987 and April 1988, to three offshore oil production complexes, owned and operated for commercial purposes by the National Iranian Oil Company, constituted a fundamental breach of various provisions of the Treaty of Amity and of international law (…)

The Court delivered its Judgment on 6 November 2003. Iran had contended that, in attacking on two occasions and destroying three offshore oil production complexes, owned and operated for commercial purposes by the National Iranian Oil Company, the United States had violated freedom of commerce between the territories of the Parties as guaranteed by the 1955 Treaty of Amity, Economic Relations and Consular Rights between the United States and Iran. It sought reparation for the injury thus caused. The United States had argued in its counter-claim that it was Iran which had violated the 1955 Treaty by attacking vessels in the Gulf and otherwise engaging in military actions that were dangerous and detrimental to commerce and navigation between the United States and Iran. The United States likewise sought reparation.

(On the Court’s ruling on self defense, click here).

The Court then examined the issue of whether the United States, in destroying the platforms, had impeded their normal operation, thus preventing Iran from enjoying freedom of commerce “between the territories of the two High Contracting Parties” as guaranteed by the 1955 Treaty (Art. X, para. 1). It concluded that, as regards the first attack, the platforms attacked were under repair and not operational, and that at that time there was thus no trade in crude oil from those platforms between Iran and the United States. Accordingly, the attack on those platforms could not be considered as having affected freedom of commerce between the territories of the two States.

The Court reached the same conclusion in respect of the later attack on two other complexes, since all trade in crude oil between Iran and the United States had been suspended as a result of an embargo imposed by an Executive Order adopted by the American authorities. The Court thus found that the United States had not breached its obligations to Iran under Article X, paragraph 1, of the 1955 Treaty and rejected Iran’s claim for reparation.

In regard to the United States counter-claim, the Court, after rejecting the objections to jurisdiction and admissibility raised by Iran, considered whether the incidents attributed by the United States to Iran infringed freedom of commerce or navigation between the territories of the Parties as guaranteed by Article X, paragraph 1, of the 1955 Treaty. The Court found that none of the ships alleged by the United States to have been damaged by Iranian attacks was engaged in commerce or navigation between the territories of the two States. Nor did the Court accept the generic claim by the United States that the actions of Iran had made the Persian Gulf unsafe for shipping, concluding that, according to the evidence before it, there was not, at the relevant time, any actual impediment to commerce or navigation between the territories of Iran and the United States. The Court accordingly rejected the United States counter-claim for reparation.”

6. Land and Maritime Boundary between Cameroon and Nigeria (Cameroon v. Nigeria: Equatorial Guinea intervening) Judgment, 10 October 2002

On 29 March 1994, Cameroon initiated proceedings against Nigeria with respect to the question of sovereignty over the Bakassi Peninsula, and requested the Court to determine the land and maritime frontier between the two States. A summary of the case is provided here.

7. Maritime Delimitation and Territorial Questions between Qatar and Bahrain (Qatar v. Bahrain) Judgment, 16 March 2001.

On questions relating to jurisdiction, as it relates to what constitutes a treaty establishing the jurisdiction of the Court, see here.

Excerpts of the summary provided in the ICJ website:

“On 8 July 1991, Qatar filed in the Registry of the Court an Application instituting proceedings against Bahrain in respect of certain disputes between the two States relating to sovereignty over the Hawar Islands, sovereign rights over the shoals of Dibal and Qit’at Jaradah and the delimitation of their maritime areas. (…)

In its Judgment of 16 March 2001, the Court, after setting out the procedural background in the case, recounted the complex history of the dispute. It noted that Bahrain and Qatar had concluded exclusive protection agreements with Great Britain in 1892 and 1916 respectively, and that that status of protected States had ended in 1971. The Court further cited the disputes which had arisen between Bahrain and Qatar on the occasion, inter alia, of the granting of concessions to oil companies, as well as the efforts made to settle those disputes.

The Court first considered the Parties’ claims to Zubarah. It stated that, in the period after 1868, the authority of the Sheikh of Qatar over Zubarah had been gradually consolidated, that it had been acknowledged in the Anglo-Ottoman Convention of 29 July 1913 and definitively established in 1937. It further stated that there was no evidence that members of the Naim tribe had exercised sovereign authority on behalf of the Sheikh of Bahrain within Zubarah. Accordingly, it concluded that Qatar had sovereignty over Zubarah.

Turning to the Hawar Islands, the Court stated that the decision by which the British Government had found in 1939 that those islands belonged to Bahrain did not constitute an arbitral award, but that did not mean that it was devoid of legal effect. It noted that Bahrain and Qatar had consented to Great Britain settling their dispute at the time and found that the 1939 decision must be regarded as a decision that was binding from the outset on both States and continued to be so after 1971. Rejecting Qatar’s arguments that the decision was null and void, the Court concluded that Bahrain had sovereignty over the Hawar Islands.

The Court observed that the British decision of 1939 did not mention Janan Island, which it considered as forming a single island with Hadd Janan. It pointed out, however, that in letters sent in 1947 to the Rulers of Qatar and Bahrain, the British Government had made it clear that “Janan Island is not regarded as being included in the islands of the Hawar group”. The Court considered that the British Government, in so doing, had provided an authoritative interpretation of its 1939 decision, an interpretation which revealed that it regarded Janan as belonging to Qatar. Accordingly, Qatar had sovereignty over Janan Island, including Hadd Janan.

The Court then turned to the question of the maritime delimitation. It recalled that international customary law was the applicable law in the case and that the Parties had requested it to draw a single maritime boundary. In the southern part, the Court had to draw a boundary delimiting the territorial seas of the Parties, areas over which they enjoyed territorial sovereignty (including sea-bed, superjacent waters and superjacent aerial space). In the northern part, the Court had to make a delimitation between areas in which the Parties had only sovereign rights and functional jurisdiction (continental shelf, exclusive economic zone).

With respect to the territorial seas, the Court considered that it had to draw provisionally an equidistance line (a line every point of which is equidistant from the nearest points on the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea of each of the two States is measured) and then to consider whether that line must be adjusted in the light of any special circumstances. As the Parties had not specified the baselines to be used, the Court recalled that, under the applicable rules of law, the normal baseline for measuring the breadth of the territorial sea was the low-water line along the coast. It observed that Bahrain had not included a claim to the status of archipelagic State in its formal submissions and that the Court was therefore not requested to take a position on that issue. In order to determine what constituted the Parties’ relevant coasts, the Court first had to establish which islands came under their sovereignty. Bahrain had claimed to have sovereignty over the islands of Jazirat Mashtan and Umm Jalid, a claim which had not been contested by Qatar. As to Qit’at Jaradah, the nature of which was disputed, the Court held that it should be considered as an island because it was above water at high tide ; the Court added that the activities which had been carried out by Bahrain were sufficient to support its claim of sovereignty over the island. With regard to low-tide elevations, the Court, after noting that international treaty law was silent on the question whether those elevations should be regarded as “territory”, found that low-tide elevations situated in the overlapping area of the territorial seas of both States could not be taken into consideration for the purposes of drawing the equidistance line. That was true of Fasht ad Dibal, which both Parties regarded as a low-tide elevation. The Court then considered whether there were any special circumstances which made it necessary to adjust the equidistance line in order to obtain an equitable result. It found that there were such circumstances which justified choosing a delimitation line passing on the one hand between Fasht al Azm and Qit’at ash Shajarah and, on the other, between Qit’at Jaradah and Fasht ad Dibal.

In the northern part, the Court, citing its case law, followed the same approach, provisionally drawing an equidistance line and examining whether there were circumstances requiring an adjustment of that line. The Court rejected Bahrain’s argument that the existence of certain pearling banks situated to the north of Qatar, and which were predominantly exploited in the past by Bahraini fishermen, constituted a circumstance justifying a shifting of the line. It also rejected Qatar’s argument that there was a significant disparity between the coastal lengths of the Parties calling for an appropriate correction. The Court further stated that considerations of equity required that the maritime formation of Fasht al Jarim should have no effect in determining the boundary line.”

8. Maritime Delimitation in the Area between Greenland and Jan Mayen (Denmark v. Norway) Judgment, 14 June 1993

Excerpts of the summary provided in the ICJ website:

On 16 August 1988, the Government of Denmark filed in the Registry an Application instituting proceedings against Norway, by which it seised the Court of a dispute concerning the delimitation of Denmark’s and Norway’s fishing zones and continental shelf areas in the waters between the east coast of Greenland and the Norwegian island of Jan Mayen, where both Parties laid claim to an area of some 72,000 square kilometres.

On 14 June 1993, the Court delivered its Judgment (…)

The Court examined separately the two strands of the applicable law : the effect of Article 6 of the 1958 Convention, applicable to the delimitation of the continental shelf boundary, and then the effect of the customary law which governed the fishery zone. After examining the case law in this field and the provisions of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Court noted that the statement (in those provisions) of an “equitable solution” as the aim of any delimitation process reflected the requirements of customary law as regards the delimitation both of the continental shelf and of exclusive economic zones.

It appeared to the Court that, both for the continental shelf and for the fishery zones in the instant case, it was proper to begin the process of delimitation by a median line provisionally drawn, and it then observed that it was called upon to examine every particular factor in the case which might suggest an adjustment or shifting of the median line provisionally drawn. The 1958 Convention required the investigation of any “special circumstances” ; the customary law based upon equitable principles for its part required the investigation of the “relevant circumstances”.

The Court found that, although it was a matter of categories which were different in origin and in name, there was inevitably a tendency towards assimilation between the two types of circumstances.

The Court then turned to the question whether the circumstances of the instant case required adjustment or shifting of the median line. To that end it considered a number of factors. With regard to the disparity or disproportion between the lengths of the “relevant coasts”, alleged by Denmark, the Court concluded that the striking difference in lengths of the relevant coasts constituted a special circumstance within the meaning of Article 6, paragraph 1, of the 1958 Convention. Similarly, as regards the fishery zones, the Court was of the opinion that the application of the median line led to manifestly inequitable results.

The Court concluded therefrom that the median line should be adjusted or shifted in such a way as to effect a delimitation closer to the coast of Jan Mayen.

The Court then considered certain circumstances that might also affect the position of the boundary line, i.e., access to resources, essentially fishery resources (capelin), particularly with regard to the presence of ice ; population and economy ; questions of security ; conduct of the Parties. Among those factors, the Court only retained the one relating to access to resources, considering that the median line was too far to the west for Denmark to be assured of equitable access to the capelin stock. It concluded that, for that reason also, the median line had to be adjusted or shifted eastwards. Lastly, the Court proceeded to define the single line of delimitation (…)

9. Land, Island and Maritime Frontier Dispute (El Salvador/Honduras: Nicaragua intervening) Judgment, 11 September 1992

Excerpts of the summary provided in the ICJ website:

On 11 December 1986, El Salvador and Honduras notified to the Court a Special Agreement whereby the Parties requested the Court to form a Chamber (…) in order to (1) delimit the frontier line in the six sectors not delimited by the 1980 General Treaty of Peace concluded between the two States in 1980 and (2) determine the legal situation of the islands in the Gulf of Fonseca and the maritime spaces within and outside it (…)

In November 1989, Nicaragua addressed to the Court an Application under Article 62 of the Statute for permission to intervene in the case (…) (this was permitted, see Judgment of 13 September 1990)

The Chamber began by noting the agreement of both Parties that the fundamental principle for determining the land area is the uti possidetis juris, i.e., the principle, generally accepted in Spanish America, that international boundaries follow former colonial administrative boundaries. The Chamber was, moreover, authorized to take into account, where pertinent, a provision of the 1980 Peace Treaty that a basis for delimitation is to be found in documents issued by the Spanish Crown or any other Spanish authority during the colonial period, and indicating the jurisdictions or limits of territories, as well as other evidence and arguments of a legal, historical, human or any other kind. Noting that the Parties had invoked the exercise of government powers in the disputed areas and of other forms of effectivités, the Chamber considered that it might have regard to evidence of action of this kind affording indications of the uti possidetis juris boundary. The Chamber then considered successively, from west to east, each of the six disputed sectors of the land boundary, to which some 152 pages were specifically devoted.

With regard to the legal situation of the islands in the Gulf, the Chamber considered that, although it had jurisdiction to determine the legal situation of all the islands, a judicial determination was required only for those in dispute, which it found to be El Tigre, Meanguera and Meanguerita. It rejected Honduras’s claim that there was no real dispute as to El Tigre. Noting that in legal theory each island appertained to one of the Gulf States by succession from Spain, which precluded acquisition by occupation, the Chamber observed that effective possession by one of the States could constitute a post-colonial effectivité shedding light on the legal situation. Since Honduras had occupied El Tigre since 1849, the Chamber concluded that the conduct of the Parties accorded with the assumption that El Tigre appertained to it. The Chamber found Meanguerita, which is very small, uninhabited and contiguous to Meanguera, to be a “dependency” of Meanguera. It noted that El Salvador had claimed Meanguera in 1854 and that from the late nineteenth century the presence there of El Salvador had intensified, as substantial documentary evidence of the administration of Meanguera by El Salvador showed. A protest in 1991 by Honduras to El Salvador over Meanguera was considered too late to affect the presumption of acquiescence by Honduras. The Chamber thus found that Meanguera and Meanguerita appertained to El Salvador.

With regard to the legal situation of the islands in the Gulf, the Chamber considered that, although it had jurisdiction to determine the legal situation of all the islands, a judicial determination was required only for those in dispute, which it found to be El Tigre, Meanguera and Meanguerita. It rejected Honduras’s claim that there was no real dispute as to El Tigre. Noting that in legal theory each island appertained to one of the Gulf States by succession from Spain, which precluded acquisition by occupation, the Chamber observed that effective possession by one of the States could constitute a post-colonial effectivité shedding light on the legal situation. Since Honduras had occupied El Tigre since 1849, the Chamber concluded that the conduct of the Parties accorded with the assumption that El Tigre appertained to it. The Chamber found Meanguerita, which is very small, uninhabited and contiguous to Meanguera, to be a “dependency” of Meanguera. It noted that El Salvador had claimed Meanguera in 1854 and that from the late nineteenth century the presence there of El Salvador had intensified, as substantial documentary evidence of the administration of Meanguera by El Salvador showed. A protest in 1991 by Honduras to El Salvador over Meanguera was considered too late to affect the presumption of acquiescence by Honduras. The Chamber thus found that Meanguera and Meanguerita appertained to El Salvador.

With respect to the maritime spaces within the Gulf, El Salvador claimed that they were subject to a condominium of the three coastal States and that delimitation would hence be inappropriate ; Honduras argued that within the Gulf there was a community of interests necessitating a judicial delimitation. Applying the normal rules of treaty interpretation to the Special Agreement and the Peace Treaty, the Chamber found that it had no jurisdiction to effect a delimitation, whether inside or outside the Gulf. As for the legal situation of the waters of the Gulf, the Chamber noted that, given its characteristics, the Gulf was generally acknowledged to be a historic bay. The Chamber examined the history of the Gulf to discover its “régime”, taking into account the 1917 Judgment of the Central American Court of Justice in a case between El Salvador and Nicaragua concerning the Gulf. In its Judgment, the Central American Court had found inter alia that the Gulf was a historic bay possessing the characteristics of a closed sea. Noting that the coastal States continued to claim the Gulf as a historic bay with the character of a closed sea, a position in which other nations acquiesced, the Chamber observed that its views on the régime of the historic waters of the Gulf coincided with those expressed in the 1917 Judgment. It found that the Gulf waters, other than the three-mile maritime belt, were historic waters and subject to the joint sovereignty of the three coastal States. It noted that there had been no attempt to divide the waters according to the principle of uti possidetis juris. A joint succession of the three States to the maritime area thus seemed to be the logical outcome of the uti possidetisprinciple. The Chamber accordingly found that Honduras had legal rights in the waters up to the bay closing line, which it considered also to be a baseline.

Regarding the waters outside the Gulf, the Chamber observed that entirely new concepts of law, unthought of when the Central American Court gave its Judgment in 1917, were involved, in particular those regarding the continental shelf and the exclusive economic zone, and found that, excluding a strip at either extremity corresponding to the maritime belts of El Salvador and Nicaragua, the three joint sovereigns were entitled, outside the closing line, to a territorial sea, continental shelf and exclusive economic zone, but must proceed to a division by mutual agreement. Lastly, as regards the effect of the Judgment on the intervening State, the Chamber found that it was not res judicata for Nicaragua.

NB: In Application for Revision of the Judgment of 11 September 1992 in the Case concerning the Land, Island and Maritime Frontier Dispute(El Salvador/Honduras: Nicaragua intervening) (El Salvador v. Honduras), on 10 September 2002, El Salvador filed a request for revision of the Judgment delivered on 11 September 1992 by seeking a revision of the course of the boundary decided by the Court for the sixth disputed sector of the land boundary between El Salvador and Honduras. It was the first time that an Application had been made seeking a revision of a judgment rendered by one of the Court’s Chambers.

The Chamber accordingly considered, based on the are version of facts presented by El Salvador, whether the 1992 Chamber might have reached different conclusions if it had had before it the new versions of these documents produced by El Salvador.

” It concluded that this was not the case. The new versions in fact confirmed the conclusions reached by the Chamber in 1992 and were thus not “decisive factors”. Having found that none of the new facts alleged by El Salvador were “decisive factors” in relation to the Judgment of 11 September 1992, the Chamber held that it was unnecessary for it to ascertain whether the other conditions laid down by Article 61 of the Statute were satisfied.” (The summary provided in the ICJ website).

10. Arbitral Award of 31 July 1989 (Guinea-Bissau v. Senegal) Judgment, 12 November 1991

Summary provided in the ICJ website:

On 23 August 1989, Guinea-Bissau instituted proceedings against Senegal, on the basis of the declarations made by both States under Article 36, paragraph 2, of the Statute. Guinea-Bissau explained that, notwithstanding the negotiations pursued from 1977 onwards, the two States had been unable to reach a settlement of a dispute concerning the maritime delimitation to be effected between them. Consequently they had jointly consented, by an Arbitration Agreement dated 12 March 1985, to submit that dispute to an Arbitration Tribunal composed of three members. Guinea-Bissau indicated that, according to the terms of Article 2 of that Agreement, the Tribunal had been asked to rule on the following twofold question :

“1. Does the Agreement concluded by an exchange of letters [between France and Portugal] on 26 April 1960, and which relates to the maritime boundary, have the force of law in the relations between the Republic of Guinea-Bissau and the Republic of Senegal ?

2. In the event of a negative answer to the first question, what is the course of the line delimiting the maritime territories appertaining to the Republic of Guinea-Bissau and the Republic of Senegal respectively ?”

Guinea-Bissau added that it had been specified, in Article 9 of the Agreement, that the Tribunal would inform the two Governments of its decision regarding the questions set forth in Article 2, and that that decision should include the drawing of the frontier line on a map. According to the Application, the Tribunal communicated to the Parties on 31 July 1989 a “text that was supposed to serve as an award” but did not in fact amount to one. Guinea-Bissau asserted that the decision was inexistent as the majority of two arbitrators (against one) that had voted in favour of the text was no more than apparent given that one of the two arbitrators — in fact the President of the Tribunal — was said to have “expressed a view in contradiction with the one apparently adopted by the vote”, in a declaration appended thereto. Subsidiarily, Guinea-Bissau maintained that the Award was null and void, as the Tribunal had failed, in various ways (see explanation below) to accomplish the task assigned to it by the Agreement. By an Order dated 12 February 1990, the Court dismissed a request for the indication of provisional measures presented by Guinea-Bissau.

It delivered its Judgment on 12 November 1991. The Court first considered its jurisdiction, and, in particular, found that Guinea-Bissau’s declaration contained no reservation, but that the declaration of Senegal, which replaced a previous declaration of 3 May 1985, provided among other things that it was applicable only to “all legal disputes arising after the present declaration . . .”. As the Parties agreed that only the dispute relating to the Award rendered by the Tribunal (which arose after the Senegalese declaration) was the subject of the proceedings before the Court and that it should not be seen as an appeal from the Award, or as an application for revision of it, the Court accordingly regarded its jurisdiction as established. It then rejected, inter alia, Senegal’s contention that Guinea-Bissau’s Application, or the arguments used in support of it, amounted to an abuse of process. With regard to Guinea-Bissau’s contention that the Award was inexistent, the Court considered that the view expressed by the President of the Tribunal in his declaration constituted only an indication of what he considered would have been a better course. His position therefore could not be regarded as standing in contradiction with the position adopted by the Award. The Court accordingly dismissed the contention of Guinea-Bissau that the Award was inexistent for lack of a real majority.

The Court then examined the question of the nullity of the Award, as Guinea-Bissau had observed that the Tribunal had not replied to the second question put in Article 2 of the Arbitration Agreement and had not appended to the Award the map provided for in Article 9 of that Agreement. According to Guinea-Bissau, those two omissions constituted an excès de pouvoir. It was further asserted that no reasons had been given by the Tribunal for its decision. With regard to the absence of a reply to the second question, the Court recognized that the structure of the Award was, in that respect, open to criticism, but concluded that the Award was not flawed by any failure to decide. The Court then observed that the Tribunal’s statement of reasoning, while succinct, was clear and precise, and concluded that the second contention of Guinea-Bissau must also be dismissed. With regard to the validity of the reasoning adopted by the Tribunal on the issue of whether it was required to answer the second question, the Court recalled that an international tribunal normally had the right to decide as to its own jurisdiction and the power to interpret for that purpose the instruments which governed that jurisdiction. It observed that Guinea-Bissau was in fact criticizing the interpretation in the Award of the provisions of the Arbitration Agreement which determine the Tribunal’s jurisdiction, and proposing another interpretation. Further to a detailed consideration of Article 2 of the Arbitration Agreement, it concluded that the Tribunal had not acted in manifest breach of its competence to determine its own jurisdiction by deciding that it was not required to answer the second question except in the event of a negative answer to the first. Then, with respect to the argument of Guinea-Bissau that the answer given by the Tribunal to the first question was a partially negative answer and that this sufficed to satisfy the prescribed condition for entering into the second question, the Court found that the answer given achieved a partial delimitation, and that the Tribunal had thus been able to find, without manifest breach of its competence, that its answer to the first question was not a negative one. The Court concluded that, in this respect also, the contention of Guinea-Bissau that the entire Award was a nullity must be rejected. It considered moreover that the absence of a map could not in this case constitute such an irregularity as would render the Award invalid.

11. Continental Shelf (Libyan Arab Jamahiriya/Malta) Judgment, 3 June 1985

Summary provided in the ICJ website:

This case, which was submitted to the Court in 1982 by Special Agreement between Libya and Malta, related to the delimitation of the areas of continental shelf appertaining to each of these two States. In support of its argument, Libya relied on the principle of natural prolongation and the concept of proportionality. Malta maintained that States’ rights over areas of continental shelf were now governed by the concept of distance from the coast, which was held to confer a primacy on the equidistance method of defining boundaries between areas of continental shelf, particularly when these appertained to States lying directly opposite each other, as in the case of Malta and Libya. The Court found that, in view of developments in the law relating to the rights of States over areas of continental shelf, there was no reason to assign a role to geographical or geophysical factors when the distance between the two States was less than 400 miles (as in the instant case). It also considered that the equidistance method did not have to be used and was not the only appropriate delimitation technique. The Court defined a number of equitable principles and applied them in its Judgment of 3 June 1985, in the light of the relevant circumstances. It took account of the main features of the coasts, the difference in their lengths and the distance between them. It took care to avoid any excessive disproportion between the continental shelf appertaining to a State and the length of its coastline, and adopted the solution of a median line transposed northwards over a certain distance. In the course of the proceedings, Italy applied for permission to intervene, claiming that it had an interest of a legal nature under Article 62 of the Statute. The Court found that the intervention requested by Italy fell, by virtue of its object, into a category which — on Italy’s own showing — was one which could not be accepted, and the Application was accordingly refused.

12. Delimitation of the Maritime Boundary in the Gulf of Maine Area (Canada/United States of America) Judgment, 12 October 1984

Summary provided in the ICJ website:

On 25 November 1981, Canada and the United States notified to the Court a Special Agreement whereby they referred to a Chamber of the Court the question of the delimitation of the maritime boundary dividing the continental shelf and fisheries zones of the two Parties in the Gulf of Maine area.

This Chamber was constituted by an Order of 20 January 1982, and it was the first time that a case had been heard by an ad hoc Chamber of the Court.

The Chamber delivered its Judgment on 12 October 1984. Having established its jurisdiction and defined the area to be delimited, it reviewed the origin and development of the dispute and laid down the principles and rules of international law governing the issue. It indicated that the delimitation was to be effected by the application of equitable criteria and by the use of practical methods capable of ensuring, with regard to the geographical configuration of the area and the other relevant circumstances, an equitable result. It rejected the delimitation lines proposed by the Parties, and defined the criteria and methods which it considered to be applicable to the single delimitation line which it was asked to draw. It applied criteria of a primarily geographical nature, and used geometrical methods appropriate both for the delimitation of the sea-bed and for that of the superjacent waters (...for the technical information on how the Court delimited the area, see here). The co-ordinates of the line drawn by the Chamber are given in the operative part of the Judgment.

13. Continental Shelf (Tunisia/Libyan Arab Jamahiriya) Judgment, 24 February 1982

Summary provided in the ICJ website:

By a Special Agreement notified to the Court in 1978, it was asked to determine what principles and rules of international law were applicable to the delimitation as between Tunisia and the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya of the respective areas of continental shelf appertaining to each.

After considering arguments as well as evidence based on geology, physiography and bathymetry on the basis of which each party sought to support its claims to particular areas of the sea-bed as the natural prolongation of its land territory, the Court concluded, in a Judgment of 24 February 1982, that the two countries abutted on a common continental shelf and that physical criteria were therefore of no assistance for the purpose of delimitation.

Hence it had to be guided by “equitable principles” (as to which it emphasized that this term cannot be interpreted in the abstract, but only as referring to the principles and rules which may be appropriate in order to achieve an equitable result) and by certain factors such as the necessity of ensuring a reasonable degree of proportionality between the areas allotted and the lengths of the coastlines concerned.

The Court found that the application of the equidistance method could not, in the particular circumstances of the case, lead to an equitable result. With respect to the course to be taken by the delimitation line, it distinguished two sectors (see the judgement for technical information)

During the course of the proceedings, Malta requested permission to intervene (and the request was rejected by the Court) (…).

14. Aegean Sea Continental Shelf (Greece v. Turkey) Judgment, 19 December 1978

Summary provided in the ICJ website:

On 10 August 1976, Greece instituted proceedings against Turkey in a dispute over the Aegean Sea continental shelf. It asked the Court in particular to declare that the Greek islands in the area were entitled to their lawful portion of continental shelf and to delimit the respective parts of that shelf appertaining to Greece and Turkey. At the same time, it requested provisional measures indicating that, pending the Court’s judgment, neither State should, without the other’s consent, engage in exploration or research with respect to the shelf in question.

On 11 September 1976, the Court found that the indication of such measures was not required and, as Turkey had denied that the Court was competent, ordered that the proceedings should first concern the question of jurisdiction.

In a Judgment delivered on 19 December 1978, the Court found that jurisdiction to deal with the case was not conferred upon it by either of the two instruments relied upon by Greece : the application of the General Act for Pacific Settlement of International Disputes (Geneva, 1928) — whether or not it was in force — was excluded by the effect of a reservation made by Greece upon accession, while the Greco-Turkish press communiqué of 31 May 1975 did not contain an agreement binding upon either State to accept the unilateral referral of the dispute to the Court.

15. Territorial Dispute (Libyan Arab Jamahiriya/Chad) Judgment, 3 February 1994

Excerpts of the summary provided in the ICJ website:

(…) The Court delivered its Judgment on 3 February 1994. It began by observing that Libya considered that there was no existing boundary, and had asked the Court to determine one, while Chad considered that there was an existing boundary, and had asked the Court to declare what that boundary was.

The Court then referred to the lines claimed by Chad and by Libya, as illustrated in sketch-map No. 1 reproduced in the Judgment (see below p. 146) ; Libya’s claim was on the basis of a coalescence of rights and titles of the indigenous inhabitants, the Senoussi Order, the Ottoman Empire, Italy and Libya itself ; while that of Chad was on the basis of a Treaty of Friendship and Good Neighbourliness concluded by France and Libya on 10 August 1955, or, alternatively, on French effectivités, either in relation to, or independently of, the provisions of earlier treaties.

The Court noted that it had been recognized by both Parties that the 1955 Treaty between France and Libya was the logical starting-point for consideration of the issues before the Court. Neither Party questioned the validity of the 1955 Treaty, nor did Libya question Chad’s right to invoke against Libya any such provisions thereof as related to the frontiers of Chad. One of the matters specifically addressed was the question of frontiers, dealt with in Article 3 and Annex I.

The Court pointed out that if the 1955 Treaty did result in a boundary, this furnished the answer to the issues raised by the Parties. Article 3 of the Treaty provided that France and Libya recognized that the frontiers between, inter alia, the territories of French Equatorial Africa and the territory of Libya were those that resulted from a number of international instruments in force on the date of the constitution of the United Kingdom of Libya and reproduced in Annex I to the Treaty.

In the view of the Court, the terms of the Treaty signified that the Parties thereby recognized complete frontiers between their respective territories as resulting from the combined effect of all the instruments listed in Annex I. By entering into the Treaty, the Parties recognized the frontiers to which the text of the Treaty referred ; the task of the Court was thus to determine the exact content of the undertaking entered into.

The Court specified in that regard that there was nothing to prevent the Parties from deciding by mutual agreement to consider a certain line as a frontier, whatever the previous status of that line. If it was already a territorial boundary, it was confirmed purely and simply.

It was clear to the Court that — contrary to what was contended by the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya — the Parties had agreed to consider the instruments listed as being in force for the purpose of Article 3, since otherwise they would not have included them in the Annex.

Having concluded that the Contracting Parties wished, by the 1955 Treaty, to define their common frontier, the Court considered what that frontier was (see here for the Court’s determination in defining the boundary).

The Court then described the line resulting from those relevant international instruments. Considering the attitudes adopted subsequently by the Parties with regard to their frontiers, it reached the conclusion that the existence of a determined frontier had been accepted and acted upon by the Parties (…).

For an analysis see here.

16. Frontier Dispute (Burkina Faso/Republic of Mali) Judgment, 22 December 1986

Summary provided in the ICJ website:

On 14 October 1983 Burkina Faso (then known as Upper Volta) and Mali notified to the Court a Special Agreement referring to a Chamber of the Court the question of the delimitation of part of the land frontier between the two States. This Chamber was constituted by an Order of 3 April 1985. Following grave incidents between the armed forces of the two countries at the very end of 1985, both Parties submitted parallel requests to the Chamber for the indication of interim measures of protection. The Chamber indicated such measures by an Order of 10 January 1986.

In its Judgment delivered on 22 December 1986, the Chamber began by ascertaining the source of the rights claimed by the Parties. It noted that, in that case, the principles that ought to be applied were the principle of the intangibility of frontiers inherited from colonization and the principle of uti possidetis juris, which accords pre-eminence to legal title over effective possession as a basis of sovereignty, and whose primary aim is to secure respect for the territorial boundaries which existed at the time when independence was achieved. The Chamber specified that, when those boundaries were no more than delimitations between different administrative divisions or colonies all subject to the same sovereign, the application of the principle of uti possidetis juris resulted in their being transformed into international frontiers, as in the instant case.

It also indicated that it would have regard to equity infra legem, that is, that form of equity which constitutes a method of interpretation of the law and which is based on law. The Parties also relied upon various types of evidence to give support to their arguments, including French legislative and regulative texts or administrative documents, maps and “colonial effectivités” or, in other words, the conduct of the administrative authorities as proof of the effective exercise of territorial jurisdiction in the region during the colonial period. Having considered those various kinds of evidence, the Chamber defined the course of the boundary between the Parties in the disputed area. The Chamber likewise took the opportunity to point out, with respect to the tripoint Niger-Mali-Burkina Faso, that its jurisdiction was not restricted simply because the endpoint of the frontier lay on the frontier of a third State not a party to the proceedings. It further pointed out that the rights of Niger were in any event safeguarded by the operation of Article 59 of the Statute of the Court.

 

 

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