'Have you heard the one about the landlocked country that has a navy?' The country in question? Why Bolivia of course; and the country it's bringing to task over its landlocked status is neighbouring Chile.
'Have you heard the one about the landlocked country that has a navy?' Well if not, you can expect to hear much more about it as the International Court of Justice in the Hague begins hearings on this state’s long-running claim for access to the sea. Its navy might just become a little more practical should this daring bid prove successful.
The country in question? Why Bolivia of course; and the country it's bringing to task over its landlocked status is neighbouring Chile.
The dispute is deep-rooted. Bolivia once had access to the Pacific Ocean, but lost it in a war with Chile in the late 1800s (Bolivia's ally in that war, Peru, also suffered territorial loses). A treaty in 1904 officially recognised Bolivia's landlocked status. In return for the new arrangement, Chile promised Bolivia “the fullest and freest” commercial transit.
Depending on which side you speak to, that 'full and free' trade transit has either been adhered to as best possible or has been oft-hindered, the latter interpretation coming from many Bolivian observers. Indeed, the country puts a lot of the blame for its economic status — it is the poorest in South America — down to the fact of its current 'sea-less' situation.
What's more, according to Eduardo Rodríguez Veltzé, a former Bolivian president who is now ambassador to the Netherlands, Chile itself has paved the way for a new settlement by repeatedly offering Bolivia some sort of access to the sea after the treaty came into force.
For the Chilean side, such a stance is ludicrous. The country's foreign minister, Heraldo Muñoz, believes Bolivia is not merely asking for dialogue, which Chile would enter into, but negotiations under court order “with only one outcome”: Namely, restoring its access to the Pacific.
While this may be somewhat of a local dispute, how the International Court of Justice (ICJ) views and rules on it could have implications further afield.
For one, while both countries are parties to the Pact of Bogotá, which obliges signatories to submit disputes to international tribunals, this actually excludes conflicts that were settled before 1948. So if the ICJ were to start meddling in a treaty that was signed in 1904, a global precedent could be set.
The most probable outcome according to many observers is that the first hearing, covering Chile's objection to the whole process on the grounds that the court has no jurisdiction in the matter, will be accepted.
In such a scenario, Bolivia's best option for redress might be to deal directly with its neighbour, in the hope that Chile could be willing to 'play (beach) ball' with them, so to speak.
What is pretty much certain – especially considering Bolivia's constitution of 2009 enacted by current president Evo Morales claims an "irrevocable right" to the ocean – is that the current landlocked country won't give this dispute up easily.
Equally unlikely, however, is that Chile will go along with the old Spanish saying 'Mi casa es tu casa', 'My house is your house', without getting something tangible in return.
Bolivia's 'battle for the Pacific' has plenty of legs to run yet.
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