By Alexandre Grosbois | AFP
January 27, 2014 (AFP) – Call them symbolic or the stuff of chest-thumping national pride, but a string of rumbling Latin American territorial disputes are set to take center stage at The Hague.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ), the UN’s supreme judicial body, cannot impose binding rulings, but its decisions are generally respected through prior agreements between the opposing sides.
At least six countries in the region are involved in legal action at the ICJ, most of them over disputes that date back decades and which have threatened to boil over on numerous occasions.
After five years of legal wrangling, the ICJ is to rule on January 27 on a contentious Pacific Ocean maritime dispute between Chile and Peru.
Lima filed a suit in January 2008 claiming sovereignty over a patch of sea covering 95,000 square kilometers (35,000 square miles) rich in fisheries resources, but now under the control of Chile.
Peru argues that the maritime boundaries were never set. Chile disagrees, saying the limits were established in two treaties, signed in 1952 and 1954.
The border dispute stems from a war fought from 1879 to 1883. Chile won and Peru lost 25 percent of its territory. Bolivia lost access to the sea.
Bolivia weighed in in April, filing a suit urging the court to force Chile to negotiate an accord granting now-landlocked Bolivia a sovereign corridor to the sea.
Poverty-stricken Bolivia for the past 130 years has been without 120,000 square kilometers of land it once had, including a 400-kilometer stretch of coastline.
That loss has been hugely costly to Bolivia.
Its drive to recover that vital access to the sea has been a national rallying cry, becoming part of the constitution and a repeated claim voiced by populist President Evo Morales.
He said he sued only after 10 years of trying to engage in dialogue with Chile went nowhere.
In March his Chilean counterpart Sebastian Pinera said his country would defend “with all the force of its national unity, history and truth, its territory, its sea, its skies and its sovereignty.”
‘Question of prestige’
International law expert Olivier Ribbelink, from the T.M.C. Asser Instituut in The Hague, said “the reason why there are so many South American cases before the ICJ probably has to do with the fact that these countries there see it as a tool that works when solving disputes.”
“It’s a question of prestige for many of these countries,” he told AFP.
Besides the conflicts among Chile, Peru and Bolivia, the court must continue to try and solve a dispute between Colombia and Nicaragua over a maritime zone covering 70,000 square kilometers.
In late November, Nicaragua turned to the court to denounce what it called Colombia’s non-compliance with a previous ruling setting out maritime borders. The case has strained bilateral relations for the past year.
The ruling handed down in The Hague in 2012 assigned to Nicaragua a maritime zone of 70,000 kilometers that until then had been under the control of Colombia.
But Bogota has dug its heels in, saying that the ruling cannot be applied without guarantees for the residents of Colombian islands such as the San Andres archipelago, now surrounded by waters that the court says are Nicaragua’s.
After that ruling, the Colombian authorities also renounced an accord that goes back to 1948 and recognizes the ICJ’s jurisdiction for border conflicts.
Nicaragua meanwhile has also been in a spat with Costa Rica since 2010 over an islet of three square kilometers.
Called Isla Portillos by Costa Rica and Harbour Head by Nicaragua, it was occupied by the Nicaraguan army in 2010. That led Costa Rica to file suit before the ICJ, which is still examining the case.
The two Central America nations are also at odds over the sovereignty of Guanacaste, a region in northern Costa Rica.