Troubled waters
Troubled waters


SANTIAGO - After presenting their closing arguments, Peru and Chile are now awaiting the verdict of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague on a maritime border dispute dating back to the 1980s. While the verdict is not expected for several months, how both countries respond to the ruling when it is released could prove decisive for the future of international justice in Latin America.

The dispute is based on 37,500 square kilometers of sea located near the border between the two countries: The area was under Peruvian control from the foundation of Peru until 1879 when, as a consequence of the War of the Pacific, it passed into Chilean hands where it has remained for the last 130 years.

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Maritime claims of Peru and Ecuador - Political Geography Now

While the tribunal deliberates, both Chile and Peru have been looking for clues to the outcome and they have found plenty in a decision made by the same tribunal on Nov. 19, when the ICJ ruled on a similar dispute between Colombia and Nicaragua. The two countries were vying for sovereignty of the San Andrés islands – a group of seven small islands in the Caribbean that have been under Colombian control for over one hundred years. The ICJ allowed Colombia to maintain its sovereignty of the islands, but also, and rather unexpectedly, awarded Nicaragua the area of sea stretching from the Central American coast to the group of islands.

The ruling from The Hague awarded something to both parties involved, in an attempt to be fair and just, but in Colombia the outcome was seen as a failure for the country and for Juan Manuel Santos’s government.

In response, the Colombian government rebelled against the court’s ruling. They decided to keep their ships in the waters that were awarded to Nicaragua and, a few days later, President Santos announced that Colombia would be withdrawing from the Pact of Bogotá, a treaty dating from 1948 in which the independent republics of America agreed to resolve all territorial disputes peacefully by appealing to the ICJ in The Hague.

Maintaining the peace in Latin America

The recent outcome of the Colombia-Nicaragua case has led both Chileans and Peruvians to believe that their own disagreement will receive a similar ruling. Until now, Chile was convinced that its position was legally very strong, but it now faces the potential loss of perhaps half of the contested waters. And although the ruling will not be announced for several months, accusatory fingers are already being pointed at the Chilean government.

The Colombian government made the mistake of not considering the possibility of an unfavorable ruling, and, surprised by the turn of events, was unable to react appropriately. Chile will not be taken by surprise in the same way, as a scenario in which Peru is awarded a portion of the sea area under consideration is already being considered.

But being prepared for such an outcome is not just highly advisable politically, it is also essential for the economy: Peru is the third highest receiver of Chilean foreign investment, with over $11,000 million invested since Dec. 2011, and the migration of Peruvian workers to Chile has been increasing steadily for the last 20 years. It is estimated that 160,000 Peruvians are now based across the border in neighboring Chile; and many of them send remittances back home.

Given the economic context, Chile needs to reconcile the current optimistic outlook regarding the ruling of The Hague with a more realistic vision of the probable outcome in order to manage public opinion. Excessive optimism would leave the government in a very uncomfortable position if the ICJ were to rule unfavorably, because the high level of economic and commercial integration between the two countries makes it unfeasible for Chile to react in the same way as Colombia.

Colombia’s reaction did not paint the country in a positive light: It initially agreed that the ICJ could rule on the case, only to then reject the verdict because it didn’t rule the way Colombia wanted. Chile must accept the ICJ’s ruling, whether it is favorable or not.

It is also important to maintain a sense of proportion. Colombia is no worse off simply because it lost control of the waters from the Central American coastline to the San Andrés islands, nor will Chile be any poorer if it loses 17,000 square kilometers of sea. A piece of sea of that size is worth significantly less than the economic opportunities currently available in both Peru and Chile -- thanks to the high level of economic and commercial integration.

Finally, one of Latin America’s biggest assets is the absence of serious wars and conflicts between its countries. The decision of the Colombian government to reject the ICJ’s ruling and withdraw from the Pact of Bogotá represents a rejection of international justice and that is not a step in the right direction. Chile and Peru need to set an example and accept the ruling of the ICJ, regardless of what it decides.

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