Bolivia's Dispute with Chile at the Hague


The Bolivia-Chile relations have been dominated by one issue, the loss of sea access for Bolivia as a result of the pacific war of 1879 between the two countries. Ever since, Bolivia has been claiming injustice to the world for, what the country calls, an illegal usurpation of territory. To this day, Bolivia and Chile do not have diplomatic relations and do not abandon controversy and confrontation instead of talking to one another.

The latest chapter in this long-standing dispute is evolving this week, from the 19th to the 23rd, in the International Court of Justice at the Hague, Netherlands. On Monday 19th and Tuesday 20th, Bolivia had the opportunity to present its last oral arguments in the process initiated by this country against Chile back in 2013. On Thursday 22nd and Friday 23rd, Chile presented its rebuttal.

What is the problem?

The core of the problem is the loss for Bolivia of sea access, which was the result of losing the war of the pacific (1879 to 1883) to Chile. While both countries have somewhat different versions of what started the war, it is possible to determine that the dispute was over taxes imposed by the Bolivian government to Chilean mines which were operating at the time in what was Bolivian-controlled territory.

The Chilean government saw this move counterproductive, and aided by foreign interests, namely by the British empire, it decided to intervene and as such declare war on Bolivia and Peru.

The war lasted some four years. Chile managed to march all the way into Lima and, in the process take control of the Bolivian Litoral department. Consequently, Bolivia formally lost control of its territory through the so called Treaty of Peace and Amity of 1904. This settled the dispute and laid down the new relations between the two countries. Among the conditions, Chile accepted to allow free access to commerce for Bolivian products in perpetuity. 

What is going on in the Hague?

In 2013, Bolivia filed a lawsuit against Chile at the ICJ. After a brief counter suit by Chile asking the court to clarify its jurisdiction, the court accepted the case and ruled it was within its jurisdiction.

Since then, both Bolivia and Chile have presented their cases in oral and written forms. This time around, between the 19th and the 23rd of March, both countries have their last opportunity to present their arguments in oral form. Bolivia presented its arguments on the 19th and the 20th and Chile presented its arguments on the 22nd and 23rd of March. These will be the last chance for both countries as a final decision is expected in the next months.

The arguments

Bolivia has been claiming its landlocked status has been a major factor against its economic development. The team of lawyers have made the argument that Chile, by its own conduct on the issue, has establish a record of willingness to addressing the Bolivian claim. This actions, if interpreted by the UN charter, establish legal grounds binding Chile to negotiate a solution for the Bolivian problem. In essence, Bolivia does not dispute the standing of the 1904 peace treaty but it asserts that Chile, through its conduct and actions, accepts the Bolivian issue is not resolved. Therefore, Bolivia asks the court to oblige Chile to enter negotiations in good faith with Bolivia to address its landlocked status.

Chile's main argument counters that Bolivia, with this course of action, pretends to impose a precondition for the negotiations it wants with Chile. It argues further, Bolivia is not simply seeking good-faith negotiations but rather, it is demanding a pre-commitment from Chile to an outcome of sovereign access.

The (possible) outcome

What is the most likely outcome to a dispute such as this? It is reasonable to expect the court will want to do justice to both sides. On the one side, it will want to move towards the Bolivian argument which reasonably asks for the opportunity to keep talking (even negotiating). At the same time, the court is likely to side with Chile at the moment of advising the two sides that no country is legally obliged to enter negotiations or talks expecting to cede territory to another country. The decision is most likely to be: yes both countries have to talk with one another, however it cannot be expected from Chile to enter such talks accepting to negotiate the terms for loss of sovereignty of its own territory.


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