In opening arguments before an international court over a 19th-century territorial dispute, the government of Chile told judges in The Hague on Monday that they had no power to decide whether to grant Bolivia an outlet to the Pacific Ocean.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) this week began hearing a complaint filed by Bolivian President Evo Morales against his Chilean neighbors over disputed territory lost during the War of the Pacific (1879-1883).
La Paz wants Santiago to “negotiate in good faith for a quick and effective agreement”
La Paz asked the UN court in 2013 to push Santiago to “negotiate in good faith for a quick and effective agreement” that would give land-locked Bolivia sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean.
During a three-hour argument, lawyers for the Chilean government insisted that Bolivia must abide by the terms of the 1904 Treaty of Peace and Friendship that put an end to the war and remains in effect to this day. Under that agreement, Chile gave Bolivia perpetual rights for the transit of goods and people across its territory to the ocean, the lawyers said.
Bolivia lost its only coastal territory after it was defeated by Chilean troops in the War of the Pacific, which also involved neighboring Peru.
Since then, the Bolivian government has had special rights to move its goods, including natural gas, across Chile without having to pay special excise taxes. Nevertheless, La Paz still has to foot the bill to transport 1.6 million tons of nickel, silver, lead and other minerals to Chilean ports every year for export.
There is a risk of chilling our bilateral relations”
“Every border dispute has its legal components but to file an action in court is not always the solution,” the lawyers said. “Legal action cannot substitute diplomacy. You have to know how to manage the situation and create conditions so that it can take place as well as guarantee that it is effective.”
According to Chilean government sources, Santiago believes that La Paz made an unfortunate move by filing the complaint at The Hague. “There is the risk of chilling our bilateral relations,” said one source.
The court is expected to hand down its decision later this year, according to a top official in Chilean President Michelle Bachelet’s administration.
Bolivia and Chile broke off official diplomatic relations in 1978 because of the territorial dispute. But while La Paz and Santiago began to discuss some bilateral issues in 1993, Morales’ lawsuit before the international court has furthered strained relations between the two South American nations.
Chilean diplomats consulted by EL PAÍS expressed their anger over Bolivia’s confidence that it would win the case while also explaining that the government in Santiago has always been open to dialogue.
The dispute has become one of Morales’ priorities. A new Constitution drafted in 2009 includes a clause that recognizes Bolivia’s “inalienable and imprescriptible rights” to territory that borders the Pacific.
During a speech last month, Morales said Bolivians were united in their claims and explained that treaties were “not meant to exist forever as those debates in international forums insist.”
Arguments before the ICJ are expected to continue until Friday. Bolivia will continue in its attempts to convince the court to assume jurisdiction in the case, while Chile will focus its efforts in the opposite direction and try to persuade it to throw out Morales’ complaint.