Judgment Bay   

May 5, 2022
Sarah Jacobson

The Maritime Dispute between El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras in the Gulf of Fonseca  


The Gulf of Fonseca is a sheltered inlet whose coast and waters are shared by El Salvador to the north, Honduras to the east, and Nicaragua to the south. The entrance to the Gulf measures 19.5 nautical miles (36 kilometers) and is marked in the north by Cape Amapala in El Salvador and to the south by Cape Cosigüina in Nicaragua. Several rivers run into and feed the Gulf, with mangrove swamps blanketing the coastline, and numerous islands dotted throughout. The resource rich waters and unique marine environments are part of the Pacific Central American Coastal Large Marine Ecosystem, and the Gulf is home to crucial shrimp nurseries, which are a main export of the region.

It is often believed that the Gulf of Fonseca was a sparsely inhabited region prior to Spanish “discovery” in 1522, however, ethnohistorical research proves that numerous ethnic groups speaking various languages existed in villages among the islands and coasts along the Gulf. Conchagua Vieja was one such village, home to the Lenca people, an indigenous ethnic group native to the region. Archaeologists propose the prior existence of an extensive travel and trade network along the coasts and complex river systems of Central America, with the Gulf of Fonseca being one of many trade centers allowing coastal and inland populations to exchange goods.

A description of the Gulf of Amapall, 1685. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Conflict within the Gulf began after Spanish conquest between the governorships of Guatemala and Honduras, not over the land, but due to the value that could be acquired through enslaving the native population. Over 90% of the indigenous population was eradicated or enslaved within approximately 30 years of colonization. Just 150 years after the initial accounts of the region, records indicate little to no existence of indigenous settlements in the area, leading to the false belief that the region had been previously sparsely populated (Chapters 3 & 4 of Archaeology of the Colonial Period Gulf of Fonseca, Eastern El Salvador). 

A view of the Gulf of Fonseca from Isla Conchagüita in 1973, from the Smithsonian Institution’s Global Volcanism Program.

The Gulf was not a source of conflict again until El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua gained independence, as Spain failed to delimit the maritime boundaries within the Gulf during the colonial period. The conflicts that exist today, centuries later, are due to the extensive resources and economic opportunity provided by the Gulf through fishing, trade routes and access to the Pacific Ocean.

[So Many] Court Judgments 

Issues of sovereignty and access to resources in the Gulf of Fonseca arose quickly following Honduras’, El Salvador’s and Nicaragua’s independence from Spain in 1839. Upon independence, the respective boundaries of the three nations reflected the former administrative boundaries of the Spanish colonies, utilizing the principle of uti possidetis iuris – a concept in international law that preserves the existing boundaries of former colonies. This was first applied to former Central American colonies rising into statehood and again for African countries seeking independence a century later. As colonial boundaries, at best, ignored historic delimitations between indigenous groups and, at worst, purposefully undermined them, the use of uti possidetis iuris has led to countless conflicts in Central, South America and Africa as newly independent states attempted to establish governments and functioning economies. The Gulf of Fonseca is home to one of these post-colonial territorial conflicts due to its rich resources and geopolitical value.

The first attempt at resolving boundary issues in the region began in 1888, when Honduras and Nicaragua signed a treaty partially delimiting the land frontier. However, much of the land boundary remained unsettled, and so a request was made to the King of Spain to arbitrate the remaining disputed border. In 1906, an award on the boundary questions was issued. Nicaragua contested the award and more than fifty years later, brought the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) who delivered its Judgment on 18 November 1960. The ICJ found that the 1906 boundary, based on the Spanish colonial borders, was binding, and Nicaragua was obliged to accept and enforce it. The two countries returned to the ICJ in 2007 which determined the starting point of their Caribbean Sea maritime boundary and sovereignty of several islands. A Caribbean territorial sea boundary was not established, and the Court urged both States to negotiate and further define the boundary bilaterally. 

The boundary between El Salvador and Honduras to the north was first established in a 1980 General Peace Treaty which provided for a partial delimitation. After failing to complete the delimitation for the remainder of the border within 5 years of the treaty, El Salvador and Honduras agreed to take their case to the ICJ in 1986, with Nicaragua intervening to defend its rights in the Gulf of Fonseca. 

A Judgment was handed down on 11 September 1992, which delimited the remaining undefined El Salvador–Honduras land frontier and determined the legal ownership of islands and maritime spaces in and outside the waters of Fonseca. The ICJ ruled that the Gulf is an historic bay with shared internal waters, since all three littoral states gained independence from the same sovereign nation, Spain. Additionally, as Spain failed to delimit the maritime boundaries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua within the Gulf, the Court classified it as a condominium, and determined that the three Parties shall maintain a tripartite presence in the waters while pending an official delimitation (HISTORY AND DEVELOPMENT: A CONDOMINIUM IN THE GULF OF FONSECA – Chapters 1 & 2). Beyond the Gulf, the Court granted Honduras access to the Pacific Ocean, protecting their historic fishing rights and allowing them to benefit from the natural resources. While not specifying any official maritime boundaries, the Court did vaguely grant Honduras a 3 nautical mile wide corridor extending from the closing line of the Gulf of Fonseca. 

Sketch-map No. G-1 Gulf of Fonseca from the 1992 Judgment.

El Salvador was unhappy with the Court’s proposed solution and attempted to have the ICJ revise the 1992 Judgment a decade later, renewing the strained relationship with Nicaragua and Honduras as they both supported the original terms of the Judgment. El Salvador’s request was found inadmissible by the Court based on the presented facts. Despite attempts at reconciliation in the following years, violence in the region continued due to disputes over maritime boundaries, trade routes, fishing zone access, and undercover drug trafficking in the region. 

2021 Agreement between Nicaragua and Honduras

On 28 October 2021, Honduras and Nicaragua signed a treaty partially delimiting their maritime boundaries in the Caribbean Sea and in the waters outside the Gulf of Fonseca. This agreement partially delineates and affirms the boundaries between Nicaragua and Honduras as determined by the various judgments on its boundaries in 1960, 2007, and 1992. 

The majority of the articles in the 2021 Agreement focus on the Gulf of Fonseca, mostly reaffirming and accepting the provision of the 1992 Judgment. The agreement further defines the extent of Honduras’ Pacific Ocean Corridor and provides the coordinates to divide the sovereignty corridors along the Gulf closing line. Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua each have sovereignty over approximately one third of the closing line, extended out to sea along a specified azimuth. While providing a vague indication of what the Pacific Ocean maritime boundary delimitation may be, further negotiations must be done involving El Salvador, who thus far has refused to participate. 

The Future of Fonseca

The 2021 Agreement has not entered into force. While it was ratified by Nicaragua promptly, Honduras hesitated and has yet to approve the treaty. There were concerns that the former Honduran president, Juan Orlando Hernández agreed to the deal to guarantee his future political asylum in Nicaragua. Hernández has been linked to drug trafficking cases by US Federal Courts, and his younger brother was sentenced to life in prison in 2019 for similar charges. Hernández left office following Honduras’ presidential elections in January 2022 and attempted to gain immunity from prosecution by joining the Central American Parliament (Parlacen). However, in February 2022, the US Supreme Court issued an extradition request and Hernández was transferred to the US, currently awaiting trial. 

El Salvadoran President, Nayib Bukele, who refused to take part in the Gulf of Fonseca negotiations, responded to the agreement with an official document issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs fully rejecting the proposal. Bukele has stated that he was apprehensive to attend the negotiations due to the dubious circumstances surrounding the agreement, and the reaction it might receive from the international community if he were to take part in such a deal. 

Additionally, El Salvador and Honduras continue to dispute the sovereignty of Conejo Island, a small island that can be reached by foot during low tide along the coast of Honduras. The island was not officially disputed until El Salvador filed its request to the ICJ for revision a decade after the 1992 Judgment. El Salvador was intending to modify the boundary along the River Goascorán from its present course to a historic riverbed. In doing this, Conejo Island would be within El Salvador’s control, which could further restrict Honduras’ access to the Pacific Ocean through the Gulf of Fonseca. However, with El Salvador’s claim being found inadmissible by the ICJ due to insufficient evidence, the island remains in Honduran waters. Despite this ruling, El Salvador has maintained their claim to Conejo Island in the intervening years.

Since the 2021 Agreement, violence has continued to plague the region, with Honduran fishermen being captured by El Salvadoran troops in attempts to travel across the Gulf for better fishing prospects. It is unclear whether Honduras plans to ratify the Agreement given the current friction between the parties.

The Gulf of Fonseca is a unique geographic feature and home to an interesting trilateral sovereignty question. Despite multiple bilateral agreements and Court Judgments, maritime boundary delimitation in the Gulf and adjacent Pacific Ocean is no closer to being defined than it was at the end of Spanish colonial rule almost two hundred years ago.

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