The Hague, Netherlands (AP) — The United Nations' highest court set travel rules Monday for the Nicaraguan river that borders Costa Rica, affirming freedom for Costa Rican boats while upholding Nicaragua's right to regulate traffic.
The decision by the International Court of Justice was applauded by both countries, which must now consult on how to carry out the lengthy ruling that left room for both sides to claim victory.
The judgment ended a four-year legal battle and defined navigational rights on the San Juan River, which have been the subject of disputes for nearly two centuries.
Under an 1858 treaty between the two Central American countries, the entire river belongs to Nicaragua up to the Costa Rican bank, but Costa Rican ships have freedom of navigation for commerce.
In 2005, Costa Rica complained to the U.N. court, also known as the World Court, that Nicaragua was infringing on its navigation rights by imposing unfair restrictions, including a requirement that passengers and tourists obtain Nicaraguan visas, pay travel fees, and that all boats stop at Nicaraguan police posts for inspection and identification.
The court affirmed Nicaragua's rights to set timetables for when Costa Rican ships can use the river, to demand the identification of passengers — though not visas — and to insist that all vessels fly the Nicaraguan flag.
The 14 judges said, however, that Nicaragua was wrong to charge fees from Costa Ricans and tourists, calling that an impediment to Costa Rica's treaty rights to use the river for profitable commerce.
Nicaraguan Deputy Foreign Minister Valdrack Jaentschke called the decision a "victory" because it recognizes Nicaragua's sovereignty and bans Costa Rica from patrolling the river with armed police.
"It's been made extremely clear: The waters are Nicaragua's, and that's one of the arguments that Nicaragua wanted to confirm," he said.
Nicaraguan sovereignty was never at question, but Costa Rica challenged a series of restrictions imposed by Managua in recent years to assert its authority.
Costa Rica's Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Edgar Ugalde, who led his country's legal team, said in The Hague he was satisfied with the judgment, which he said would improve relations between the two neighbors.
"We didn't have any rights when we came into the court," he told The Associated Press. The judges had given Costa Rica "around 70 percent of what we asked for."
In San Jose, Costa Rican Foreign Minister Bruno Stagno said he, too, was pleased. "I would say the most important thing about this ruling is that Costa Rica recovers its navigational rights and where the main beneficiaries will be the population in the zone," he said.
The judges, drawn from all areas of the world, showed unusual unanimity in issuing 21 different rulings. Their widest split — 9 votes to 5 — was on whether Nicaragua had the right to demand visas.
The court ordered Nicaragua to lift restrictions on Costa Ricans living on the southern bank to fish and travel on the river for their daily needs.
Costa Ricans had been fishing for their livelihood "undisturbed and unquestioned for a long period," and had earned the "customary right" to continue, the judgment said. But it forbade commercial fishing from boats in the river.
It said the Costa Rican government can use the waterway to provide essential services, but not for police vessels.
The river bank is thick with jungle and part of it is set aside as a wildlife reserve, making overland travel in the region long and arduous. Costa Rica had argued that people in the area needed boats to send their children to school and to reach medical services.
The International Court of Justice was created in 1949 to settle disputes among U.N. member states. Its judgments are binding and not subject to appeal, although the court has no enforcement arm.
Use of the river has been a source of conflict since Central America became independent of Spain in the 1820s. An arbitration settlement by U.S. President Grover Cleveland in 1888 resolved most outstanding problems until the Nicaraguan civil war erupted in the 1980s, when traffic was largely halted.
Costa Rica complained that Nicaragua began tightening its regulation of the river in the 1990s, which amounted to a violation of its treaty obligations.
The court agreed that Nicaragua failed to live up to the treaty when it required passengers to obtain visas and pay fees, and when it sold tourist cards to foreigners on Costa Rican boats.
But the judges rejected Costa Rica's request for an unspecified amount of financial compensation.