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Bolivia; Chile; International Court of Justice: Access to the Sea Case

(Apr. 25, 2014) 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. Bolivia lost that access to the coast in a 19th-century war with Chile, leaving it landlocked. Chile has stated that Bolivia’s claims have no historical or legal grounds. (Bolivia Presenta en La Haya Argumentos de su Demanda contra Chile por su Salida al Mar, REUTERS (Apr. 15, 2014).)

Bolivia and Chile have had limited diplomatic relations since 1978, and attempts to negotiate to redraw the border have failed in the past. The Bolivian government has requested that Chile negotiate in good faith with Bolivia to reach an agreement that would grant Bolivia fully sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean. (Id.)

The border between the two countries was last set in a 1904 Treaty of Peace and Friendship, signed in Santiago, Chile, on October 20, 1904. Under that agreement, Bolivia lost 400 kilometers of coastline and 120,000 square kilometers of territory to Chile, following the War of the Pacific of 1879-1884. (Tratado de Paz y Amistad de 20 de octubre de 1904, Dirección de Fronteras y Límites del Estado, Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores de Chile [Directorate of Borders of the State, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Chile] website.)

Since that time, Bolivia has been attempting to reclaim the lost territory and the outlet to the sea and has severed relations with Chile repeatedly. Bolivia still maintains a limited navy. The Chilean government has expressed confidence that Bolivia’s claims will not be recognized because they amount to a unilateral dismissal of the 1904 treaty commitment that has established the two countries’ common border and that remains in force. (Isabel Ferrer, Bolivia Demanda a Chile ante La Haya por su Salida al Mar, EL PAÍS (Apr. 15, 2014).) Bolivia bases its claims on legal, historical, and economic arguments. It demands 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. (Id.)

Bolivia considers the economic damage caused by its lack of sea access to be extensive. Chile has benefited from the exploitation of natural fertilizers, sulfur, and salt by British companies interested in the profits derived from these materials. The richest copper deposits are located in the land that Bolivia lost to Chile and are key to the prosperity of the Chilean economy. (Mabel Azcui, Evo Morales Reclama a Chile una Salida Marítima para Bolivia, EL PAÍS (Mar. 24, 2014).)

In addition to diverting the course of the Lauca River, which begins in Chile and ends in Bolivia, Chilean businesses exploit water derived from the Silala River to sell to the population in northern Chile, without any compensation having been paid to Bolivia in more than 100 years. The Bolivian government has also denounced, in its complaint before the ICJ, the violation by Chile of the bilateral treaties concluded since 1904 with regard to the import and export of cargo by Bolivia through Chilean ports. (Id.)