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Maritime dispute between Peru and Chile ends in a tie, more or less

Peru chile sea

The International Court of Justice at The Hague awarded all of the area in light pink to Peru, while dividing the dark-pink area roughly in half, giving the northern portion to Peru and the southern parcel to Chile. Meanwhile, Bolivia remains without direct access to the sea. (Graphic credit: Pace International Law Review.)

El Comercio – Peru’s leading newspaper – called it a “Solomon-like judgment.”

Meanwhile, El Mercurio – the most prominent paper in neighbouring Chile – said the ruling recognized the claims of both countries.

If that seems like an anti-climactic end to a passionately disputed international conflict, well, probably it was.

But nobody in either Peru or Chile seemed too unhappy about the result – a decision handed down Monday by the International Court of Justice at The Hague that pretty much split the difference in resolving a long-running disagreement over maritime rights between the two South American neighbours.

Peru filed the case at The Hague in 2008 in an effort to back its claim to a large area of the Pacific Ocean extending from the terrestrial border region between the two countries. The waters in question are stirred by the cool Humboldt Current and include some of the most valuable fishing grounds on the planet. According to an Associated Press report, an estimated $200 million in annual fishing revenues were at stake, in addition to huge quantities of national pride.

Already acrimonious, the dispute was further fueled by ancient tensions between Lima and Santiago, reaching back to the 19th Century War of the Pacific. Chile triumphed over Peru in that conflict. Its forces occupied the Peruvian capital for a time and exacted major territorial gains. The long-ago defeat remains a sore point for many Peruvians and continues to cause a certain element of distrust in their dealings with Chileans.

According to the Chilean position on the case before The Hague, the maritime boundary between the two countries in the contested area should have extended for 80 km. from the coast along a line running parallel to the Equator.

For their part, the Peruvians favoured a boundary that extended southwest from the coast, more or less following the direction the terrestrial border would have taken if it were prolonged across the sea .

In the end, the apparently even-handed justices at The Hague drew a line in the water that did a bit of both, giving each country some but not all of what it sought. Peru won the greater maritime area, while Chile may have gained the more lucrative fishing rights – or so it seemed. The experts voiced differing opinions.

Both Michelle Bachelet, Chile’s president-elect, and Peruvian President Ollanta Humala seemed reasonably pleased with the outcome, which cannot be appealed. The two countries are increasingly interdependent economically, and the two leaders seemed bent on avoiding further conflict.

Now, perhaps, Chile and Peru can get back to another dispute that divides them – a conflict over pisco, a grape-based libation that both countries claim as their national drink. They have been fighting over that one for years.

As a post-script, it should be noted that this week’s judgment from The Hague in no way resolves yet another and possibly even more fervent South American territorial dispute, also dating back to the War of the Pacific. Bolivia fought in that war, too, and its losses involved more than a parcel of land. In losing to Chile, Bolivia was forced to relinquish its access to the sea and has been a brooding land-locked republic ever since.

The Bolivians still have a navy, though.

Oakland Ross is a foreign affairs reporter for the Toronto Star.


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