World court to rule on Bolivia sea row with Chile

Published September 28, 2018, 12:13 PM

by iManila Developer

By Agence France-Presse

The UN’s top court will rule on Monday whether Chile must negotiate access to the Pacific Ocean with landlocked Bolivia, in a case that has fouled relations between the two neighbors for decades.

Bolivia -- South America's poorest country -- became landlocked after losing a four-year war against Chile at the end of the 19th century, forfeiting territory and its access to the Pacific coast (AFP / MANILA BULLETIN)
Bolivia — South America’s poorest country — became landlocked after losing a four-year war against Chile at the end of the 19th century, forfeiting territory and its access to the Pacific coast (AFP / MANILA BULLETIN)

A 15-judge bench at the International Court of Justice will hand down judgement in the bitter legal battle which revolves around Bolivia’s struggle to restore badly-needed access to the sea — lost in 1884 after defeating in a war with Chile.

La Paz in 2013 dragged Santiago to the Hague-based ICJ, set up after World War II to rule in disputes between countries. The court’s findings are binding and cannot be appealed.

Bolivian President Evo Morales is due to attend the announcement at 1300 GMT, as the leftist leader has before with previous hearings in the case.

Chile and Bolivia have had no diplomatic relations since 1978 when Bolivia’s last attempt to negotiate a passage to the Pacific broke down in acrimony.

Morales’ presence at the hearings “arguably signals a commitment to pursue legal arguments for historical change,” said Geoff Gordon, an analyst at the Hague-based Asser Institute.

It also “underscores the high stakes for Bolivia and Chile, which has much to lose in respect to area of coastline,” he added.

“Each side seems likely to respond with disappointment and anger to an adverse ruling,” Gordon added.

Bolivia says regaining its territory which comprises of several hundred kilometers (miles) of coastline along the northern tip of Chile will stimulate growth and development in South America’s poorest country.

Its lawyers have argued that it has tried several times over the last century to discuss possible access to the Pacific, but to no avail.

Bolivian activists said the loss of the Chuquicamata mine, the world’s largest open-pit copper mine which is situated in the disputed area, has also badly hit the country’s indigenous peoples.

These attempts were continuously slapped down by the Chileans, La Paz’s lawyers said, leading to the breakdown in diplomatic relations.

‘Sovereign territory’

Santiago, in turn, said the border is based on a 1904 peace treaty signed with Bolivia in the wake of the 1879-1883 War of the Pacific and therefore must be respected.

Both capitals were bound to attach political significance whatever the outcome, experts said.

Morales’s presence at the hearings may also play a role in his aspirations to run a fourth time in Bolivia’s presidential polls next year, experts said.

“What is at stake is not so much sovereignty of access to the sea, but the political strategy of (Bolivian President) Evo Morales,” said Lucia Dammert, a Peruvian analyst based in Santiago.

“Whatever happens,” Morales will see as a victory, Dammert told AFP.

Chile will not negotiate with Bolivia over the issue as “our sovereign territory is protected and will not be a part in anyone’s negotiations,” its Foreign Minister Roberto Ampuero said last week.

But President Sebastian Pinera has not ruled out an “intermediate solution” in which the ICJ “invites parties to negotiate in good faith which may be with or without a predetermined result.”

“The question remains whether the result of negotiations are pre-set, in other words give some form of access to the sea,” said Eric De Brabandere, professor of international dispute settlement at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

Or “whether there is merely an obligation to sit down and negotiate in good faith without any commitment as to the outcome of the negotiations,” he told AFP.

Meanwhile, Chile has opened its own case against Bolivia over the Silala waterway, which flows into the parched Atacama desert and which La Paz has threatened to divert.