UN court decision rekindles centuries-old dispute over Bolivian sea access

This October, the international community saw a new development in an ongoing territorial dispute between the South American nations of Bolivia and Chile. After months of deliberation, on October 1 the United Nations’ International Court of Justice ruled in Chile’s favor, deciding that the Chilean government has no legal obligation to partake in negotiations with Bolivia over a disputed piece of territory that would give Bolivia access to the Pacific Ocean.

After failed attempts to negotiate with Chile in 2013, Bolivia’s Evo Morales took the issue to the UN’s top court in an effort to establish Bolivian rights to the territory in international law. However, after five years and thorough deliberation by the judicial body, the UN ruled in a 12-3 majority decision that Chile is under no constitutional obligation to negotiate with Bolivia (BBC News). Evo Morales, one of the most prominent voices on the issue, was optimistic that the court would recognize Bolivia’s argument, and even went in person to hear the verdict (The Telegraph).

This discord between the two nations began over 130 years ago when Chile crossed its northern border into Bolivia’s territory in the Atacama Desert in response to a dispute over corporate taxation (Time). This invasion was followed by a five-year conflict known as the War of the Pacific in which Chile’s navy defeated the Bolivian-Peruvian alliance in 1884, taking small pieces of coastal territory from both countries. After decades of resistance, Bolivia finally conceded 120,000 square kilometers of land to Chile in 1904 (BBC News)—however, Bolivia has been extremely reluctant to comply with this agreement, regularly proposing new terms and negotiations in bids to regain the territory. The last time that negotiations were attempted was in the 1970s; however, like all previous attempts, the talks became hostile and no agreement was reached. Chile and Bolivia have not had a diplomatic relationship since 1978.

Bolivian president Evo Morales has been very outspoken on the issue, arguing that Chile’s claim over this territory is unfair and hinders Bolivia’s ability to expand economically. Although the treaties signed in 1904 (the Treaty of Ancon and the Treaty of Peace and Friendship) allow Bolivia full access to Chile’s commercial ports, Morales and his allies allege that Bolivian merchants still have to account for transportation costs across the Atacama Desert to and from coastal ports (Time). They argue that Bolivians still have to pass through Chile’s complex bureaucratic system and checks in order to trade through this territory, and sometimes even have to pay taxes in order to trade through Chilean ports. Morales claims that these obstacles make it impossible for Bolivia, one of South America’s only landlocked countries, to assert its position as a player in the global economy. He has argued that if Bolivia were given full rights to this territory, it would catapult the poor country into unprecedented economic growth.

Despite the fact that it has claim to one of the strongest economies and longest coastlines on the continent, however, Chile has been adamant in its refusal to consider conceding the chunk of land to its neighbor. This stance has been defended consistently by Chilean politicians and citizens alike according to public opinion polls that show that it would be highly unpopular if Chile did decide to part ways with the territory (World Politics Review). This historic conflict has caused a rift between citizens of the two countries, with the issue of sea access a particularly sensitive topic for many Bolivians who see it as the only means of economic growth and who support the government’s persistent efforts to overturn the territorial agreements of 1904.

Although the country has not had access to a coastline for over 130 years, Bolivia still has a small navy—which, interestingly, was actually formed in 1963, nearly six decades after it conceded its coastal territory (Time). The small military force spends its time patrolling rivers and Lake Titicaca, which sits on the border between Bolivia and Peru. Bolivia also continues to celebrate a national ‘Day of the Sea’ each year in March (BBC News). The celebrations of this national holiday generally entail public displays of animosity towards Chile and rhetoric of gaining this territory in the future.

Throughout his tenure, Evo Morales has been one of the most outspoken voices on the issue, often making grandeur promises of reclaiming this valuable chunk of territory. This rhetoric has been largely supported by Peruvian leaders, who agree that it is unjust for Chile to refuse negotiations to return this land to Bolivia. In fact, in 2010, Peru’s then-President Alan Garcia awarded Bolivia a tiny patch of its own shoreline as a demonstration of approval for the landlocked country to continue fighting for coastal access (The Guardian).

However, the recent decision by the UN International Court of Justice has thwarted optimism among many Bolivians who see the decision as the nail in the coffin for the dispute. Some view that Bolivia should simply move on from this issue and seek more attainable ways to become more active in the global economy. A prominent supporter of this claim is ex-President Jaime Paz Zamora, who recently announced that he will be running again for president in the 2019 elections. Paz Zamora, who previously served from 1989-1993, has declared that Bolivia should ‘stop crying over Chile’ and move forward from this conflict (La Tercera).

More cooperative positions such as this would likely fare well with Chilean leaders, who have confirmed since the court’s decision that they will never cede this territory. Chilean president Sebastián Piñera has expressed his support for the International Court of Justice’s decision, stating that the ruling was clear in that he has no legal obligation to negotiate with Morales on the issue. He called Bolivia’s ongoing push to regain this territory ‘absurd’, and criticized the Bolivian president for creating false hope among his people and for ‘wasting’ the past five years pressing the issue when the two countries could have been building their diplomatic relationship (BBC News, Time).

Morales, on the other hand, has yet to stray from his strong position on the issue. Although he claims that he will respect the court’s decision, he has since stated that Bolivia will never give up in this fight for access to the sea (BBC News). He has emphasized that reaching some kind of mutual agreement is the only option for Chile and Bolivia to proceed towards friendly relations. The loss of this decision by the international court, however, along with his inflexibility on the issue, is likely to fare poorly for Morales’s struggling approval ratings among his own people. This is particularly critical as the controversial leader faces reelection for a fourth term in November of 2019.

In spite of the ongoing hostility between Chile and Bolivia, however, there is hope for solidarity in the future. Although the court ruled that Chile is not obliged to negotiate with its estranged neighbor, its judges advised that the two countries try to cooperate to reach a mutual agreement nonetheless. In the days following the ruling, Morales reportedly sent a letter to the Chilean president with the hopes of reinitiating the dialogue and achieving an agreement that benefits both parties (Televisa). The Bolivian leader has stressed that just because there is no legal obligation to negotiate does not mean that they shouldn’t, as a dialogue would be in the best interest of both countries to seek an amicable relationship.

Despite this act of solidarity, though, it is unknown if Chile’s Piñera will accept this invitation to negotiate. Now that it is set into international law that he has no requirement to negotiate, Piñera may only harden his stance and refuse future talks. The Chilean president has stated publicly in the past that even if negotiations commence, he will not under any circumstances consider resigning the territory.

Considering the determined stances on each side, it is unclear if such negotiations would actually resolve anything or if they would simply inflame tensions even further. However, it is hopeful that the two outspoken leaders can set their differences aside and follow the judges’ advice to seek a mutually beneficial relationship that can put an end to this centuries-old conflict.


  1. BBC. (2018 Oct 1). "Bolivia sea dispute: UN rules in Chile's favour". BBC News. Retrieved Friday, October 26, 2018.
  2. Agence France-Presse. (2018 Oct 1). "UN court rejects Bolivia's bid for sea access via Chile". The Telegraph. Retrieved Thursday, October 25, 2018.
  3. Ciara Nugent. (2018 Oct 3). "Landlocked Bolivia Wants a Path to the Pacific. Here's Why That Won't Be Happening Any Time Soon". Time. Retrieved Friday, October 26, 2018.
  4. Editors. (2018 Oct 4). "How the ICJ's Verdict Will Affect Chile and Bolivia's Century-Old Sea Dispute". World Politics Review. Retrieved Friday, October 26, 2018.
  5. Rory Carroll. (2010 Oct 20). "Peru gives landlocked Bolivia a piece of Pacific coast to call its own". The Guardian. Retrieved Thursday, October 25, 2018.
  6. Fernanda Rojas A.. (2018 Oct 24). "Paz Zamora va por la Presidencia de Bolivia y saca a Chile de agenda". La Tercera. Retrieved Friday, October 26, 2018.
  7. Noticieros Televisa. (2018 Oct 10). "Chile ve 'absurda' la insistencia de Bolivia en salida del mar". Televisa. Retrieved Thursday, October 25, 2018.

About Author(s)

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Kristen Martinez-Gugerli
Kristen Gugerli is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh majoring in Political Science, pursuing a BPhil in International and Area Studies, minoring in Religious Studies, Spanish, and Quechua, and earning a certificate in Latin American Studies. She studied abroad in the summer of 2017 in Cusco, Peru, and then conducted research abroad in Valladolid, Mexico in the summer of 2018 through the Center for Latin American Studies' Seminar and Field Trip program. She is particularly interested in issues involving indigenous and women's human rights in Latin America, and has tried to incorporate these interests into her studies. She is currently writing her senior thesis about existing trends in the political participation of indigenous peoples in Mexico.