Chile not obliged to negotiate sea access with Bolivia: ICJ

Ruling frustrates hopes to resolve a bitter 135-year dispute between the two Latin American neighbours.

Bolivia-Chile sea dispute
Judges voted 12 to 3 that Chile could not be forced into dialogue with Bolivia [File: David Mercado/Reuters]

An international court has ruled that Chile does not have to negotiate access to the Pacific Ocean with Bolivia, frustrating hopes of resolving a bitter 135-year dispute.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ), based in The Hague, handed down the decision on Monday, with judges voting 12-3 that Chile cannot be forced into dialogue with its Andean neighbour. 

“The court […] finds that the Republic of Chile did not undertake a legal obligation to negotiate a sovereign access to the Pacific ocean with the Plurinational State of Bolivia,” said ICJ President Judge Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf.

Landlocked Bolivia lost access to the Pacific following a war with Chile in the late 1800s. Already one of the poorest countries in Latin America, Bolivia says the lack of sea access has hampered its economic growth. 

Bolivia has long argued that Chile has been ducking legal obligations to enter negotiations that are outlined in resolutions from the Organization of American States (OAS).


Chile, however, says the issue was resolved by a 1904 peace treaty between the two countries and points out that Bolivia already has duty-free access to the Chilean port of Arica. 

Monday’s judgement said that OAS resolutions are not legally binding under international law and that talks so far held between the two countries on creating a corridor to the ocean do not compel Chile to actually create such a corridor. 

Celebration and sadness

Speaking at a press conference after the ruling, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera celebrated the “great triumph of the Chilean cause” in front of a crowd who chanted “Viva Chile”.

Pinera said his country has always had an “attitude of reconciliation” towards all others, particularly their neighbours, but that Chile would always defend its sovereignty. 


He once again accused Bolivia’s President Evo Morales, who is seeking a controversial fourth term, of using the territorial dispute to drum up support at home.

Pinera said Chile “has never had any obligation” to negotiate sea access and that Morales had given Bolivians “false expectations”. 

For his part, Morales said Bolivia would “never withdraw” its claim to the sea and that the two countries and the rest of the region have a responsibility to resolve the dispute, regardless of Monday’s ruling. 

The issue is strongly felt on both sides of the border, with Chilean and Bolivian networks broadcasting the ICJ ruling live. 

TRANSLATION: Bolivia accepts The Hague’s ruling with calm and prudence. The conclusion of 12 judges does not cancel out the feelings of 10 million Bolivians. Bolivia – now and forever – will not stop looking for a political agreement that allows it to have a presence in the sea.

In schools, Bolivian children sing songs about the country’s return to the sea, while Chile celebrates its victory in the war against Bolivia with a national holiday.

“The sea is a decisive factor for development and prosperity of people and nations,” said Claudio Gutierrez, a philosophy professor a member of Mar Para Bolivia, a group of Chileans who support Bolivia’s claim to the sea. 

“Supporting Bolivia is necessary for the brotherhood of South Americans and to heal the damage and injustice that has been done to Bolivia by depriving it of an entryway and direct exit to the sea, which [would allow] it to communicate with the world,” he told Al Jazeera.

Bolivian President Evo Morales has been accused of using the territorial dispute as a campaign issue [Yves Herman/Reuters]
Bolivian President Evo Morales has been accused of using the territorial dispute as a campaign issue [Yves Herman/Reuters]

The long-simmering dispute boiled over in 2013 after Bolivia filed a lawsuit with the ICJ, which settles legal disputes between UN member states, in an attempt to force Chile to negotiate sea access. 

Chile annexed Bolivia’s 380km coastline in 1884 after the War of the Pacific, leaving Bolivia landlocked. 

The row has poisoned diplomatic relations between the two countries, which have not hosted each other’s ambassadors for decades. 


Al Jazeera’s Teresa Bo, reporting from Buenos Aires, Argentina, said while the judgement does leave a door open for future negotiations, it is a major blow to Bolivia. 

“This ruling cannot be appealed, it’s definite and there’s obviously lots of disappointment in Bolivia who is traumatised over the loss of its coastline”. 

“The ruling is saying that both countries should try to continue on good terms and try to negotiate an end to this ongoing conflict but what’s important also is that this is a big blow for President Evo Morales […] who in a way has been promising that this time the ruling was going to be in Bolivia’s favour,” she said.

“The political conflict hasn’t disappeared, it lies dormant and inhibits Chile and Bolivia from finding political solutions in the future for this problem,” said Gutierrez. 

Additional reporting by Charlotte Mitchell: @charbrowmitch

Source: Al Jazeera