A Century-Old Dispute: Chile & Bolivia

In a recent landmark ruling, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has ruled against Bolivia in its century-long dispute with Chile over access to the Pacific Ocean. The dispute, which has lasted for over a century now, has left a long and strenuous relationship between the two South American nations, and has now required involvement from the UN’s principal judicial organ for settling legal disputes.

Bolivia became a landlocked country in 1884, following Chilean’s victory in the War of the Pacific against a Bolivian-Peruvian alliance. The borders between the two states were agreed upon in the 1904 Treaty of Peace and Friendship, and since then, much of Bolivia’s trade has passed through Chilean ports. Bolivia lost 120,000 square kilometres – roughly the size of Greece – of land during the war, and the issue of sea access has remained a salient one; the country still maintains a small navy and even holds annual celebrations of the “Day of the Sea.”

The nature of the court’s ruling considered whether Chile was obligated to engage in negotiations with Bolivia over its demands, rather than ruling if Bolivia had rights to the long-disputed coastal stretch. It has been ruled that Chile has never obligated itself to any negotiations that would lead to the surrender of territory. The ICJ ruling, which involved five years of deliberation, was intended to be “final and binding.” However, Bolivian President Evo Morales, who was in attendance at the Peace Palace in The Hague for the final court session and whose popularity in Bolivia has been boosted by his nationalistic bid for sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean, has declared that he will continue its fight for sea access. Chilean President Sebastián Piñera stated that the Bolivian appeal to the ICJ has cost the two nations “five years in healthy and necessary relations,” although Bolivia and Chile have notably not had full diplomatic relations since 1978.

It is unclear how Chile and Bolivia will proceed following Morales’ disregard for the supposedly binding nature of the ruling. Nonetheless, it has become clear that Chile has received the support of the international community. Chile now has stronger leverage if it does ever choose, out of free will, to pursue negotiations with Bolivia in an attempt to search for an eventual settlement.