Ecuador, Bolivia throw in with Peru in maritime border case against Chile

A long-standing maritime border dispute between Chile and Peru that is currently before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague took a new turn last week when a third country, Ecuador, moved to formally demarcate its sea boundaries with the government in Lima. The deal reaffirms the Peru-Ecuador sea border as a straight line that runs west parallel to the equator from the land boundary. But it also contains a clause in which Ecuador confirms that Peru’s 1950s accords with Chile were fishing agreements—not a three-way border agreement. Peru’s government is now hoping to use the agreement with Ecuador as a legal argument to finally settle its dispute with Chile. Lima’s Foreign Affairs Minister Jose Antonio García Belaunde said the signing of the agreement with Quito “is important because it ratifies the premise that Peru has always held up that the agreements of 1954 and 1952 are fishing [accords], and that will strengthen our position at The Hague.”

Peru filed a complaint with the ICJ in 2008, demanding that Chile drop its claim to 14,500 square miles of contested, fishing-rich Pacific waters. Chile cites the accords it signed with Peru and Ecuador in 1952 and 1954 to back up its claim to the contested waters. Lima’s hopes its new agreement with Ecuador will back up its own claims that those agreements were only drawn up to establish fishing rights. The new agreement will need to be ratified by the legislatures of both Peru and Ecuador.

“Our theory has always been that Peru, Ecuador and Chile signed fishing agreements in 1952, but our Chilean friends have always said that these were maritime accords,” said Peru’s President Alan García. “What does it mean 60 years later now that we have signed a maritime boundary agreement with Ecuador? It means that the agreement in 1952 wasn’t a maritime border accord.”

Chilean lawmaker Jorge Tarud, a member of the lower house foreign relations committee, retorted that the deal with Ecuador has nothing to do with his government’s own dispute with Peru. “The judges at The Hague aren’t stupid. They know the history well, and this [pact] won’t have any effect.” said Tarud. In an interview with the Santiago daily La Tercera, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera said that in signing the agreement with Ecuador, said that Peru, after respecting the 1950s accords for decades, only suddenly “began to ignore” them. He also asserted that Ecuador has not formally rejected the the borders he says were established in those accords: “President [Rafael] Correa told me that Ecuador’s position has not changed in any way.”

The Hague is expected to issue a ruling by 2013, with Chile to file its answer to Lima’s suit in July. (WorldCrunch, May 10; UPI, May 6)

The dispute dates back to the 1879-83 War of the Pacific, which involved Chile, Peru also Bolivia—which was allied with Lima and lost sea access as a result of the conflict. Chile and Bolivia are also engaged in a border dispute dating to the war. Bolivian President Evo Morales threatened in March to likewise take the Chilean government to The Hague over the issue.

Speaking on Bolivia’s “Day of the Sea,” when it commemorates its defeat in the War of the Pacific, Morales said his country’s loss of the coastline is an “open wound” that must be healed. “Our fight for maritime revindication, which has marked our history for 132 years, must now include another element,” he stated at a La Paz ceremony. “We must go to international tribunals and organisations to demand free and sovereign access to the sea.”

Hours later, Chile expressed its “categorical rejection” of Morales’ announcement, calling it an “unacceptable pretension.” President Piñera called the remarks a “serious obstacle” to relations. “Bolivia cannot expect a direct, frank and sincere dialogue while it simultaneously manifests its intention to go to international tribunals,” he said.

Bolivia broke off diplomatic relations with Chile over the territorial dispute in 1978. They resumed ministerial-level talks on the issue earlier this year, but Chile declined to respond to Bolivia’s March 23 deadline for Santiago to come up with concrete proposals on how to resolve the question. Last October, Morales signed a deal with Lima allowing Bolivia to build its own port on Peru’s Pacific Coast. Nonetheless, the demand for the return of its lost coastline from Chile is the focus of powerful national sentiment in Bolivia. The now-landlocked nation still maintains a small navy, and schoolchildren are taught that regaining access to the sea is a patriotic duty. (BBC News, March 23)

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