Published in Opinio Juris, 27 March 2018.
The Americas’ proud heritage of settling disputes through international law entered a new chapter this week, as arguments opened in Obligation to Negotiate Access to the Pacific Ocean (Bolivia v. Chile), a claim by Bolivia to regain access to the sea lost in 1879. Brilliant legal minds will cross swords over the coming days, over whether Chile is obliged to sit down and negotiate with Bolivia. But, whoever prevails in Court, negotiations could prove a win-win by healing a troubled relationship.
Bolivia lost its 200-mile coast after humiliating defeat in the 1879-83 ‘War of the Pacific’ that broke out after an earthquake forced Bolivia to impose taxes on Chilean exporters of nitrate and saltpetre. Even as Bolivia’s port of Antofagasta fell, Chile’s foreign minister, Domingo Santa María, argued that “we cannot suffocate Bolivia … we must somehow provide it with its own port, a front door …”. In 1904, a Chile-Bolivia peace treaty agreed the coastal territories now belonged to Chile “in perpetuity.” Yet sentiments like Santa María’s have echoed down the years. Bolivia contends that from the totality of these assurances, Chile has given a solemn undertaking to negotiate a sovereign access to the sea.
Several features of the case are likely to fascinate international lawyers.
Authors: Monica Feria-Tinta and Simon Milnes