Saturday, November 8, 2014

Resolving Bolivia's claim to the Pacific

David Roberts

Bolivia's demand that Chile provide it with sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean – a case the International Court of Justice in The Hague is soon to consider – offers the opportunity for the two countries to resolve their over 130-year dispute once and for all.

Bolivia lost its access to the ocean, along with a large chunk of its territory, to Chile in the Pacific War in the 1880s. Chile's argument is that it's an open and shut case – the 1904 peace treaty decided on the definitive and current border between the two and that is internationally recognized as valid. In fact, Santiago has decided to argue that the UN court does not even have jurisdiction to hear the case at all, because recognition of the court by both countries dates back to the 1948 Bogotá Pact, and so the tribunal does not have jurisdiction to hear cases that concern matters prior to then.

Bolivia's case, however, does not depend on arguing for the need to change the 1904 treaty. Instead, it is expected to claim that Chile has on several occasions pledged to resolve Bolivia's demand, most notably during a 1975 meeting between Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and his Bolivian counterpart Hugo Banzer. On that occasion the two agreed in principle to swap two pieces of territory, granting Bolivia a strip of land in the far north of Chile from the coast and along the border with Peru, which also lost a lot of land to its southern neighbor following the Pacific War. The idea never prospered, not least because of objections from Lima.

Bolivia's case is interesting, but as it doesn't actually seem to involve disputing legal documents but amounts more to what appears to be a moral argument – that Chile has some sort of obligation (a legal one?) to negotiate a solution to the issue – it is difficult to see how The Hague court can side with La Paz.

The above, however, begs the question as to whether Chile does indeed have a moral obligation to provide Bolivia with access to the sea. It is certainly easy to be sympathetic to the Bolivians. Losing the ocean drastically changed Bolivia's history, with serious detrimental effects for its economy and development. Not only did it lose access to ports, but the land ceded to Chile turned out to contain some of the largest copper deposits in the world, which have had a major beneficial impact on Chile's economy. Landlocked Bolivia, meanwhile, remains one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere.

But whatever the outcome of the court case – and it may take years before we have a decision – it is in both countries' interest to resolve the issue. It may be politically unfeasible for Chile to offer a sovereign piece of land to Bolivia, but one possibility – which has also been suggested as a potential solution in parts of the Ukraine and even the Falklands/Malvinas – would be for Bolivia to have technical sovereignty of a small plot with a port, while Chile remains the de facto administrator of the area in terms of legal jurisdiction, political control etc. Another option, which Chile has refused to consider, is to get Peru involved, as that country has made a port area available to Bolivia in the past, although without sovereignty.

As for Chile, there would be obvious advantages for the country if Bolivia were wealthier, with all the trade and investment opportunities that would represent. Ending the dispute would also open the way for Bolivia to export some of its vast reserves of natural gas to Chile, thereby helping alleviate the country's energy shortage and avoiding the need to import liquefied natural gas from as far afield as Trinidad, Qatar and Yemen, among other places, which is patently absurd given the proximity of Bolivia's reserves.

November 03, 2014

BN Americas