Bolivia: Chile is hampering efforts to resolve river dispute

Lawyers for Bolivia have told judges that Chile’s decision to file a case at the United Nations’ top court  about a river that crosses their border in the Atacama Desert has hampered diplomatic efforts to resolve the disagreement

Lawyers for Bolivia said Monday that Chile's decision to file a case at the United Nations’ top court about a dispute about a river that crosses their border in the Atacama Desert has hampered diplomatic efforts to resolve the disagreement.

The case between the Latin American neighbors at the International Court of Justice is focused on a small water system but is seen as an opportunity to lay down important jurisprudence at a time when fresh water is becoming an increasingly important world resource.

Chile filed the case in 2016, asking the world court to rule on the nature of the Silala River and use of its waters. At hearings Friday, Chile's Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Ximena Fuentes Torrijo told judges that the dispute offered the court “an opportunity to affirm the applicability of the basic principle of reasonable and equitable utilization in these times of increasing fresh water scarcity.”

The two nations say they have narrowed the scope of their disagreement since Chile filed the case. Bolivia has filed counterclaims arguing it has sovereignty over artificial channels and the waters of the Silala that they carry.

Lawyer Mathias Forteau told judges at the Hague-based court that Chile's “hasty and unilateral” decision to file a case reduced the chances of a diplomatic solution between the two countries.

“Chile seems to have brought the case before the court primarily for preventive purposes” after Bolivia had suggested it might start legal proceedings over the river, Forteau said. “Ultimately what this these proceedings show that if there is a need at all it’s just need for cooperation, not for litigation between the two countries."

Bolivia's ambassador to the Netherlands told judges that his country “finds no reason to justify Chile’s claim over the waters of the Silala before this court.”

There is, he added, “no concrete offense whatsoever committed by my country against the uses that Chile makes of the waters of the Silala in its territory."

The court will likely take months to issue a ruling in the case. Its rulings are final and legally binding.

It’s not the first time the two nations have faced off at the Hague-based court. In 2018, the court’s judges ruled that Chile did not have an obligation to negotiate access to the sea for landlocked Bolivia. Despite that ruling, Bolivia maintains that it has a right to sovereign territory giving it access to the Pacific Ocean.

Bolivia lost its only coastline to Chile during an 1879-1883 war and the nation has demanded ocean access for generations. Chile, meanwhile, has a coastline that stretches 4,300 kilometers (2,675 miles).

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