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UN Court Hears Arguments In Colombia-Nicaragua Dispute Over Islands

04/23/2012 | 11:49am US/Eastern
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--Court case over Colombia-controlled archipelago is to determine ownership of smaller islands

--Nicaragua President Ortega says it ceded the archipelago to Colombia when U.S. occupied Nicaragua

--Colombia and Spanish firms explored for oil in the area but halted activity last year

 
   By Dan Molinski 
   Of  
 

The International Court of Justice begins hearing arguments Monday in a long-running dispute between Colombia and Nicaragua over a Caribbean archipelago and the maritime borders surrounding the islands, which some say hold massive deposits of oil.

The case has been going on for over a decade and in 2007 the Hague-based court ruled Colombia has sovereignty over the San Andres archipelago's three main islands--San Andres, Providencia and Santa Catalina--based on a 1928 treaty between Colombia and Nicaragua.

The new hearings by the court, which will run for two weeks, are to settle ownership of other, smaller islands in the archipelago not covered in the 1928 treaty, and to also settle the nations' maritime borders in the area.

The islands are 140 miles east of Nicaragua and 480 miles northwest of Colombia.

Even after the 2007 ruling by the court, the United Nations's highest judicial body, Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega continues to affirm Nicaragua is the rightful owner of the islands. Managua says the 1928 treaty that ceded the islands to Colombia is invalid because it was signed while the U.S. occupied Nicaragua.

In 2010, Colombia awarded national oil company Ecopetrol (ECOPETROL.BO, EC) and Spain's Repsol YPF SA (>> Repsol YPF SA) the rights to explore for oil in the vicinity of the San Andres islands, hoping it would allow Colombia to become an offshore oil driller for the first time and boost overall production.

But in October of last year, President Juan Manuel Santos called off all oil exploration in and around the islands, citing environmental concerns voiced by island residents. Analysts wondered at the time whether Santos' decision was more political than environmental, and whether Colombia may renew oil exploration after the court makes a ruling in this latest case. The ruling, expected within a year, is likely to be the final act by the court with regards to the San Andres islands.

The Nicaragua-Colombia dispute has been compared by some to Argentina's enduring demands for the return of the Falkland Islands, which have been under British control since the early 1830s and have recently been explored for oil by U.K. companies.

While many other Latin American nations have supported Argentina's recent efforts at sovereignty over the Falklands, Colombia's President Santos has remained relatively quiet on the subject. That might be because one of Argentina's arguments for why it should control the Falklands is its geographical closeness to the islands--200 miles off Argentina's coast.

Geographical proximity has long been one of Nicaragua's main arguments with regards to the San Andres archipelago.

-By Dan Molinski, Dow Jones Newswires; 57-310-867-6542; dan.molinski@dowjones.com

Stocks mentioned in the article : Repsol YPF SA
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