Costa Rican boats allowed to travel along border river after UN World Court ruling

13 July 2009

Costa Rican tourist and commercial boats have the right to travel along the river that defines part of its border with Nicaragua, but Nicaragua has the right to regulate the river traffic, the United Nations’ top court ruled today.

A panel of judges at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued a ruling in the dispute between the Central American neighbours over what navigational and related rights Costa Rica has in the section of the San Juan River close to its mouth at the Caribbean Sea.

Costa Rica had taken action in the ICJ to challenge restrictions imposed by Nicaragua on river traffic. Under a treaty dating to 1858, the river falls in Nicaraguan territory but the bank on the south side is in Costa Rica.

The court ruled that Costa Rica has the right of free navigation along the river for commerce, and that extends to the transport of tourists and other passengers. Such passengers are not required to obtain Nicaraguan visas or tourist cards.

Inhabitants on the Costa Rican bank have the right to travel on the river between the riverside communities so they can fulfil the essential needs of everyday life, such as taking children to school or receiving medical treatment, and they are also entitled to go fishing in the river.

But the ICJ also ruled that Nicaragua has the right to require Costa Rican boats and their passengers to stop at the first and last Nicaraguan port on their route along the river; to require that all persons travelling on the river must carry either a passport or identity document; and to impose timetables on boats travelling on the river.

The judges also ruled that Nicaragua has the right to require that Costa Rican boats display the Nicaraguan flag while travelling on the river, but not to impose a charge for the issue of departure clearance certificates from its ports.

The ICJ, which is based in The Hague and also known as the World Court, is the principal judicial organ of the UN. Its rulings are binding and without appeal.


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