Saturday, September 7, 2013

Isla Conejo: Why History Matters

As if there weren't enough serious issues for the Honduran government to deal with, now there is a territorial dispute over an unpopulated island in the Gulf of Fonseca.

Thursday, Porfirio Lobo Sosa made public statements that Isla Conejo (aka Rabbit Island in English) belongs to Honduras.

El Salvador disputes that.

Lobo Sosa said:
I don't understand, in reality, what's happening but in governing the country, always on the first of September we have a flag raising on Isla Conejo, and moreover, there's been a navy base there permanently since 1969.

Lobo Sosa is treading on thin ice when he adds that "Honduras's ownership of the island was established by the International Court of Justice in the Hague" because the ownership of isla Conejo has never been the subject of a dispute in that court.

First a geography lesson.  

Isla Conejo is a small island of less than a square kilometer in surface area, located less than a kilometer off the Honduran coast. 

The Gulf of Fonseca opens onto the Pacific ocean, and is bordered by El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. The actual limits of the boundaries of all three countries, and who own different islands in the gulf, has been the subject of numerous legal battles in international courts. 

So who owns Isla Conejo?

Key to claims of ownership is the International Court of Justice's 1992 decision in the boundary dispute between El Salvador and Honduras. This case touched on, but did not directly address nor resolve, who owns Isla Conejo.  Instead it left open avenues for either country to claim the island.

When Lobo Sosa says Honduras has had a naval base on Isla Conejo since 1969, he is referring to Honduras's occupation of the island during the 1969 war with El Salvador.

Prior to 1969, Honduras had no established interest in or occupation of the island. Nor did it establish a permanent position there starting in 1969.

In its 1992 decision, the ICJ noted that Honduras's interest in and continuous occupation of the island began during the Salvadoran civil war (1980 - 1992), not in 1969 as Lobo Sosa claims.
Paragraph 314 in the ICJ decision contains the first mention of Isla Conejo. Honduras had introduced a colonial map, undated but said by Honduras to date to 1796, that summarizes observations made in 1794 by a Mexican expedition to survey the Gulf of Fonseca. 

Key to the boundary dispute between El Salvador and Honduras was the course of the Rio Goascoran during this period.  The map suggests, and the ICJ decision says it helped them conclude, that the current mouth of the Rio Guascoran is where it was in 1821, not, as El Salvador had claimed, in a different older channel. The map and expedition description make mention of Conejo point, part of the land in dispute, and the small Conejo island which lies less than a kilometer off that point.

Conejo Island also appears in paragraph 357 of the ICJ decision.  In this paragraph, which is largely concerned with establishing the ownership of another island, Meanguerra, the court took note of a Salvadoran exhibit, an entry from the official government journal (La Gaceta) of El Salvador from August of 1856, where the government of El Salvador asked the Surveyor of Vacant Lands in San Miguel (El Salvador) to survey the vacant lands on the islands of Zacate, Meanguera, and Conejo. 

Honduras offered no counter-claim about Isla Conejo as part of this case.

In Honduras' favor, the very same ICJ decision establishes that both Honduras and El Salvador have a right to claim the waters up to 3 kilometers off their coast, and since isla Conejo is less than a kilometer off Conejo point, it falls within that territorial limit. 

That is the only legal basis on record for Honduras to claim Isla Conejo, and it's not a conclusive claim.

The court used evidence of prior occupation and administration of islands in deciding the case of ownership of Meanguera and Meanguerita. The history of administrative engagement with an island weights heavily in the court's consideration of ownership. So far, Honduras has failed to show anything but a recent engagement with Isla Conejo.

It is far from "established" who owns isla Conejo, and if it were submitted by both parties to the International Court of Justice, its not clear how the court would rule.

There may have been a flag raising for the last 30 years. But that is a tiny fraction of the history of occupation that legally is considered in cases like these.

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