ICJ Rules in Favor of Somalia in Maritime Dispute

Charleigh Stone
Staff Writer

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has ruled in favor of Somalia in a maritime time dispute case instituted against Kenya over the delimitation of maritime spaces claimed by both states in the Indian Ocean. The judgement, which is binding and without appeal, was unanimous in its finding that there is no agreed maritime boundary between the two states, according to an ICJ press release.

The case, which was filed on August 28, 2014, was brought to the ICJ by Somalia to determine the maritime boundary dividing areas between itself and Kenya, which are adjacent states on the coast of East Africa. According to the official ICJ judgement, Somalia argued for an unadjusted equidistant line through all maritime areas, while Kenya contended that the maritime boundary was already agreed, with Somalia acquiescing to a boundary following parallel of latitude. 

The disputed area, a 38,000 square mile triangle in the Indian Ocean, has been at the heart of diplomatic tensions between Kenya and Somalia because it is thought to be rich in oil and gas. While the ICJ’s border ruling splits the disputed area almost equally between the two states, the new boundary was closest to a line proposed by Somalia. Somalia has subsequently been given several offshore oil blocks claimed by Kenya, reports Reuters

Kenya has not only rejected the ruling “in totality,” but also accused the ICJ of bias, according to BBC News. In a statement published by Kenya’s Presidency, President Uhuru Kenyatta cited concerns over the ICJ’s “jurisdictional overreach” and implications for the respect of sovereignty and consent of states to the international judicial process. Kenya withdrew its recognition of the compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJ on September 24. Al Jazeera reports that the Court addressed Kenya’s claims, stating there is no legal ground to reject the judgement because it cannot retroactively renege the Court’s authority to which it acceded in the 1960s.

The resultant strain on Kenyan-Somali relations has several economic and security implications, particularly in the fight against terrorist networks, according to The Washington Post. For Somalia in particular, Kenya has been a major contributor of troops to its fight against the Somalia-based al-Shabab terrorist group, which regularly carries out attacks within Somalia and against its neighbors. Tensions are further complicated by the lack of enforcement mechanisms for the ICJ, but with Kenya rejecting the ruling, the issue could be escalated to the United Nations Security Council, reports BBC News.

During its course, the maritime dispute has attracted international attention from those who are keen to benefit from the resource-rich block. Global powers have all taken different sides, according to Quartz Africa. The UK and Norway, for example, have been backing Somalia. For Britain, UK-Kenyan relations have been strained since the election of President Kenyatta,  as Kenyatta was a suspect at the International Criminal Court for post-election violence in 2007. Norway, on the other hand, enjoys a personal connection to Somalian Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khayre, who is a Norwegian citizen, while also clashing with Kenya over its expulsion of Statoil, a Norwegian oil giant. Conversely, the United States and France have backed Kenya. U.S.-Kenyan relations have gained traction through a partnership in the “war against terror” and trade deals worth a combined $100 million. Meanwhile, Total One, a French multinational oil company, was contracted by Kenya in the disputed maritime area. 

Given the tension surrounding the ICJ ruling, Kenya’s refutation, the value of the disputed zone, and the compounding interests of international actors, it is unclear what will happen next in the conflict. An escalation could result in the involvement of the UN Security Council, however, with the permanent members’ historical track of backing separate sides, the outcome of such events remains ambiguous. What is clear is that further negotiations between Somalia and Kenya will be necessary to come to a full resolution.

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