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Bolivia-Chile Disputes

Chile annexed Bolivia's 380km coastline in 1884 after the War of the Pacific, leaving Bolivia landlocked. In schools, Bolivian children sing songs about the country's return to the sea, while Chile celebrates its victory in the war against Bolivia with a national holiday. The International Court of Justice (ICJ), based in The Hague, handed down the decision on Monday, with judges voting 12-3 that Chile cannot be forced into dialogue with its Andean neighbor. "The court [...] finds that the Republic of Chile did not undertake a legal obligation to negotiate a sovereign access to the Pacific ocean with the Plurinational State of Bolivia," said ICJ President Judge Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf.

Bolivian President Evo Morales said 02 October 2018 he would write a letter to the International Court of Justice to highlight "contradictions" in the court's decision over Bolivia's claim to access to the Pacific Ocean. Bolivia's president Evo Morales says it is inevitable that his country gains access to the Pacific Ocean.

Chilean President Sebastian Pinera accused Bolivia's President Evo Morales, who was seeking a controversial fourth term, of using the territorial dispute to drum up support at home.

Bolivia and Chile had no formal diplomatic relations since 1978. The Bolivian government hopes to gain sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean in order to import and export goods and raw materials without paying costly tariffs to neighboring Chile and Peru. The 1904 treaty requires the government of Santiago to facilitate access to the sea to the neighboring country after Bolivia's coastal territory was taken during the War of the Pacific (1879-1883).

At independence Bolivia's problems were aggravated by the isolation of the new republic from the outside world and the difficulties of securing its borders. Bolivia's foreign relations have been determined by its geographical location and its position in the world economy. Located in the heart of South America, the country has lost border confrontations with neighboring nations. Along with Paraguay, Bolivia is a landlocked nation that must rely on the goodwill of neighboring countries for access to ports. Bolivia currently has secure borders and few international threats, in comparison with previous times in its history.

When South American liberator Simon Bolivar established Bolivia in 1825 after freeing it from Spanish rule, he claimed access to the sea for the newly-liberated nation. In 1866 and 1874, via two border treaties, Chile and Bolivia agreed on national borders that ratified Bolivia's sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean.

However, in 1878 the Bolivian state imposed a tax on the Antofagasta Nitrate & Railway Company (CSFA), despite having agreed in the 1874 Boundary Treaty that it would not levy taxes on Chilean people or companies for a period of 25 years. When the CSFA refused to pay, Bolivia announced the seizure and auction of CSFA property, which prompted the Chilean invasion and occupation of the then-Bolivian port city of Antofagasta. The War of the Pacific was a war of conquest waged by the Chilean state to protect the profit-making capabilities of the CSFA.

What followed was a five-year war in which Chile ultimately defeated the Peruvian and Bolivian armies, gaining control over territory rich in both guano and sodium nitrate, sought-after commodities by the world's central economies and former colonizers for their value as fertilizers and as components in explosives.

In 1904, Chile and Bolivia signed the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, in which Bolivia accepted the loss of 400 kilometers of coast and 120,000 square kilometers of territory, leaving the nation effectively landlocked. This treaty is Chile's main defense against Bolivia's claim in the ICJ.

According to Chile, the borders were settled in the 1904 treaty, which also grants Bolivia non-sovereign access to ports in Arica and Antofagasta. Bolivia, however, says it signed the treaty under duress and that later proposals by Chile, which included a land-swap to return Bolivia's access to the sea, established something called 'rights of expectations.'

In 1975, during Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship, Chile entered into negotiations with Bolivian dictator Hugo Banzer and proposed an exchange of territory that would provide Bolivia with a "corridor to the sea" and an adjacent maritime zone.

Both governments were already working together on the CIA-sponsored Plan Condor, under which South American dictatorships coordinated efforts to hunt down, torture and kill anyone linked to left-wing ideology and subversion, but despite ideological accord, the negotiations fell through.

After years of unsuccessful bilateral negotiations with Chile, in April 2013 the Plurinational State of Bolivia filed a lawsuit in the ICJ requesting the Court oblige Chile to enter negotiations over access to the Pacific Ocean.

Atacama Desert

An ongoing dispute between Bolivia and Chile over the mineral-rich coast of the Atacama Desert resulted in the War of the Pacific. A tentative peace, established in 1874, proved temporary. In 1879 Bolivia, in alliance with Peru, declared war against Chile, which had previously landed troops in the contested area. Chile won a decisive victory, forcing Bolivia from the entire coastal area in 1880.

The War of the Pacific ended in 1883 with the signing of the Treaty of Ancón, in which Peru ceded to Chile in perpetuity the nitrate-rich province of Tarapacá and relinquished, for a period of ten years, the provinces of Tacna and Arica. Tensions over these two provinces continued until 1929, when the United States brokered a deal that returned the province of Tacna to Peru but allowed Chile to retain control over the province of Arica.

In 1904 Bolivia officially ceded the coastal territory to Chile under the Treaty of Peace and Friendship. In the most traumatic episode in its history, Bolivia’s path to the Pacific Ocean was lost.

More than a century later, the perceived injustice of Bolivia’s landlocked status remains a prevailing theme in Bolivian nationalist sentiment. Although treaties have officially resolved Bolivia’s nineteenth-century border disputes, Bolivia continues to fight for a sovereign corridor to the Pacific through the Atacama Desert region it lost to Chile in the War of the Pacific.

In his address of 23 March 2011, President Morales said that: “Despite 132 years of dialogue and efforts, Bolivia does not have a sovereign access to the Pacific. Faced with this reality, it is necessary to make a historical step forward… In recent decades and particularly in recent years, International Law has made great progress; there are now tribunals and courts which sovereign States can appeal to and claim or demand what is rightfully theirs…"

Supreme Decree N° 834 of 5 April 2011 created the National Maritime Vindication Council, as the body responsible for planning strategies and policies concerning Bolivia’s maritime reintegration, and the Strategic Maritime Vindication Office (DIREMAR - Dirección Estratégica de Reivindicación Marítima) as a specialized body responsible for planning political strategies concerning Bolivia’s maritime reintegration, collaborating in preparation of the maritime claim to be lodged with international courts and supporting the judicial proceedings arising from such claim.

On April 15, 2014, Bolivia submitted to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) a memorandum with arguments supporting its lawsuit filed against Chile for the purpose of reclaiming access to the Pacific Ocean. The Chilean government expressed confidence that Bolivia’s claims will not be recognized because they amounted to a unilateral dismissal of the 1904 treaty commitment that has established the two countries’ common border and that remains in force. Bolivia based its claims on legal, historical, and economic arguments. It demanded that the ICJ consider two main points: the recognition of Bolivia’s sovereign right to access to the Pacific Ocean and the requirement that Chile negotiate the issue with Bolivia.

In its Order dated 24 September 2015, the Court fixed 25 July 2016 as the time-limit for the filing of the Counter-Memorial of Chile.

Silala River

On 06 June 2016 the Republic of Chile instituted proceedings against the Plurinational State of Bolivia before the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, with regard to a dispute concerning the status and use of the waters of the Silala River system.

In its Application, Chile argues that the Silala River originates from groundwater springs in Bolivian territory “at a few kilometres north-east of the Chile-Bolivia international boundary”. The River then flows across the border into Chilean territory where it “receives additional waters from various springs . . . before it reaches the Inacaliri River”. According to Chile, the total length of the Silala River is about 8.5 km; of this distance, approximately 3.8 km are located on Bolivian territory and 4.7 km on Chilean territory.

Chile also states that “[t]he waters of the Silala River have historically and for more than a century been used in Chile for different purposes, including the provision of water supply to the city of Antofagasta and the towns of Sierra Gorda and Baquedano”.

Chile explains that “[t]he nature of the Silala River as an international watercourse was never disputed until Bolivia, for the first time in 1999, claimed its waters as exclusively Bolivian”. Chile contends that it “has always been willing to engage in discussions with Bolivia concerning a regime of utilization of the waters of the Silala”, however these discussions were unsuccessful “due to Bolivia’s insistence on denying that the Silala River is an international watercourse and Bolivia’s contention that it has rights to the 100% use of its waters”.

According to Chile, the dispute between the two States therefore concerns the nature of the Silala River system as an international watercourse and the resulting rights and obligations of the Parties under international law. Chile thus “requests the Court to adjudge and declare that:

  • The Silala River system, together with the subterranean portions of its system, is an international watercourse, the use of which is governed by customary international law;
  • Chile is entitled to the equitable and reasonable use of the waters of the Silala River system in accordance with customary international law;
  • Under the standard of equitable and reasonable utilization, Chile is entitled to its current use of the waters of the Silala River;
  • Bolivia has an obligation to take all appropriate measures to prevent and control pollution and other forms of harm to Chile resulting from its activities in the vicinity of the Silala River;
  • Bolivia has an obligation to cooperate and to provide Chile with timely notification of planned measures which may have an adverse effect on shared water resources, to exchange data and information and to conduct where appropriate an environmental impact assessment, in order to enable Chile to evaluate the possible effects of such planned measures, obligations that Bolivia has breached.



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