Beating Bolivia to the Punch? Chile Takes the Silala River Dispute to the International Court of Justice

By Laura Iesue, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

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On June 6th, President Michelle Bachelet announced that a formal complaint against Bolivia has been made by Chile in regards to the ongoing Silala River dispute between these two countries. This complaint was made at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague- the U.N.’s highest court system – which heard previous lawsuits from both parties. The Chilean government’s quick response to issue a formal suit resulted in an emergency meeting by Bolivian officials. Evo Morales, Bolivian president, commented online: “If the Chilean authorities have values, they should ask The Hague from who belongs Silala springs.”[1]

In March 2016, President Morales commented that Bolivia would be preparing a formal case for the ICJ against Chile to settle an intended partial agreement drafted in 2009 that was never ratified. This previous agreement included a hydrologic study to determine if Chile could lay any claims to the Silala and to determine if Chile should pay any compensation to Bolivia for the use of the waters from past decades.[2] In 2013, Bolivia had taken Chile to the ICJ to get access to the Silala, as it plays an important role in land-locked Bolivia’s access to the Pacific Ocean, and to major export markets.

Reviewing the Current Complaint

Chile created a 5-point complaint, citing several issues including questioning the necessity for Chile to collaborate with Bolivia.  Included in the complaint were concerns over the environmental integrity of the Silala River, with Chile claiming they should be responsible in supervising any potential pollution issues of the shared waterway. Chile’s suspicions can hinder further hopes for cooperation between the two nations.[3] These contradictory points between the questioning of a necessity to collaborate and the calls for cooperation in regards to the environment is worthy of discussion. However, the major debate with this new complaint is how Chile’s argument directly contests with a previous ICJ ruling of 1997 that ruled that the Silala River can be seen as an international waterway.

According to the U.N. Convention of the Law of the Sea, landlocked countries should be granted access to the sea under certain conditions, to which several other Latin American countries agreed to.[4] In this regard, Chile’s new complaint directly calls into question whether the Silala River is indeed an international waterway and as stated by Foreign Minister of Chile, Heraldo Muñoz: “Chile can’t allow Bolivia to continue using international law as a vehicle for political harassment.” […] the objective of the lawsuit is to “determine whether the Silala is an international river, and therefore, a body of water Chile has some right to.”[5] Indeed, a right to access to the Silala River has never been denied to Chile, who has had sovereign rights to the river since the War of the Pacific ended in 1883.

Catching Bolivia off Guard or Generating Domestic Support?

While the dispute of the Silala River has been ongoing for decades, the quick response by Chile brings into question whether they are engaging in a political stunt to boost the approval rating of President Bachelet, which is currently at an all-time low.  In addition, this move can also be a strategy to catch Bolivia off guard, and potentially gain the upper hand in the courts. President Bachelet stated that Chile was simply “taking the initiative” after Bolivia had made comments earlier in the year that they would take Chile back to The Hague in regards to the river.[6]

 What is to come?

At this time, it is hard to predict on what will come of this recent complaint with The Hague. By choosing to challenge the previous ruling from the ICJ that sided with Bolivia and granted access to the Silala River – and thus to the Pacific Ocean – Chile exposes itself to a potential failure. Regardless of the outcome, the rather contradictory nature of the complaint will further hinder Chile-Bolivia relations in the future.

By Laura Iesue, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and instituional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated. For additional news and analysis on Latin America, please go to LatinNews. com and Rights Action.

Featured Photo: Wikipedia.

[1] Chile Sues Bolivia over Water Access at The Hague – World Bulletin. World Bulletin. 7 June 2016. Accessed 07 June 2016.

[2] Chile tries to outflank Bolivia by taking Silala case to ICJ. LatinNews Daily. 7 June 2016.

[3]   “Chile Sues Bolivia to Make Silala River International Waterway.” Latin America Herald Tribune. 7 June 2016. Accessed 7 June 2016.

[4] Iesue, Laura. “Tensions Rise between Chile and Bolivia over the Perceived State of the Formers Military Base Near the Silala River.” Council on Hemispheric Affairs. 23 May, 2016. Accessed 7 June 2016.

[5] “Chile Takes Water Dispute with Bolivia to International Court: Silala River Begins in Bolivia and Crosses the Chilean Border.” PanAm Post. 7 June 2016. Accessed 7 June 2016.

[6]Iesue, Laura. “Tensions Rise between Chile and Bolivia over the Perceived State of the Formers Military Base Near the Silala River.” Council on Hemispheric Affairs. 23 May, 2016. Accessed 7 June 2016.

3 thoughts on “Beating Bolivia to the Punch? Chile Takes the Silala River Dispute to the International Court of Justice

  • June 12, 2016 at 11:42 am

    The Silala waters and the lack of ethics of Chile

    The fact that Chile has sued Bolivia for the Silala waters can be described as a daring action against ethics and morality. Why? A review of history shows that the geographical ambitions of Chile remains in full force. Bolivia lost a huge territory to Chile (the size of England) and 400 kilometers of coastline and access to the sea as a consequences of an unjust war and whose motive was none other than expansion. And it seems that it wasn’t enough to leave Bolivia without the salty waters of the Pacific, Chile now disputes the fresh waters between Bolivia and Chile as a vampire thirsty of foreign waters.

    On top of that, the water is used by state enterprises such as Codelco, a Chilean state enterprise which operates the mine of Chuquicamata, copper division, which constitutes an unethical issue because all this happens on the heart of the Bolivian occupied territories. This copper is being exploited for over 100 years and it is estimated that its production will continue at the same pace for another 70 years, a “gift” that Chile made to itself¡

    Let us remember here that the Chilean military receives a good percentage of the profits from Codelco that is used to arm themselves against Bolivia, another anti-ethical matter. Another beneficiary is the Luksic group, one of the companies that handles more money in Chile. And guess what? Andronico Luksic Craig was vice president of Banco de Chile when he agreed to give a loan of about 10 million dollars to Bachelet’s son in a corruption case called “Caval”. Is Bachelet favoring this magnate to return the favor?

    Incidentally, Luksic Craig’s father was Luksic Abaroa, who is Eduardo Abaroa’s descendant, a Bolivian hero who was shot by the Chilean army when Chile invaded Bolivian territories. The “chilenization” of Bolivian territories was complete as it absorbed not only economic interests but the human element all of which is being used against Bolivia.

    The historical analysis is that Chile became a wealthy country, largely because of the exploitation of resources of the occupied Bolivian territories obtained after the war. Codelco and Luksic are among the largest companies, not only in Chile or South America but worldwide. So it follows that Bachelet is favoring those powerful groups more than the common folk. The mayor of Calama asked the question whether the defense of water was for businesses or citizens or people. It seems that the demand will favor these big companies although is not spelled out that way in the brief summary published by the CIJ where it mentions some towns as if to prove that people at the bottom will be affected. But it seems that who benefit from the Silala waters would be the mega companies Codelco and Luksic. This is a background scene that Bolivia needs to clarify.

    As explained above, the Chilean demand lacks the necessary ethical arguments. Chile lives in an upside down world, or Chilean bubble, proved by the declaration of Ximena Fuentes, named spokeswoman for the Chilean demand about the Silala waters, who said that Bolivia is not using these waters insinuating something wrong, in an entirely similar position of the Chileans who occupied the Bolivian Litoral to exploit its riches, a position that would favor the occupier forces over the country that legally owns the land as it happened before.

    Unethical, immoral, unprincipled, dishonest and wicked position. The fact that I don’t use my property, for any reason, does not mean that I can be deprived of it. Will abstract concepts like moral and justice be considered at the ICJ? Of course they should, specially in this case.

    Then, the Chilean demand for the Silala waters is nothing more than the extension of the excessive Chilean ambition at the expense of Bolivia that began long ago and continues, with actions that have been characterized as immoral, situation that can’t be seen by Chile since they absorbed only in their own interests. Chile has kept for itself ALL the Bolivian coastal lands and wealth with which they eat, live and arm themselves, and it does not seem to be enough.

    With the same money from the exploitation of the wealth of the Bolivian occupied territories and its corresponding maritime spaces, at least in large part, they hired lawyers to represent them in The Hague without telling them that their salary is contaminated by injustice and is used against the country which is the source of the money they receive and which supplies the Silala waters obtained for free and then sold!

    But let’s not get confused with so many facts, the real fact is that the problems between Chile and Bolivia started when Chile invaded Bolivia, kept possession of vast territories and all its salty waters and has not satisfied itself since it keeps sucking the veins of Bolivia, in this case the Silala fresh waters.

    Mar para Bolivia!

  • November 13, 2016 at 10:53 am

    The war of the Pacific has to be analyzed from both historical and geographic view points. When the Spaniards were defeated in a series of independence wars the new country limits were not always well defined. After setting the limits of the “Alto Peru”, as Bolivia was then called the people from this highland area rewarded the hero by naming their country after him. In fact, if even now Bolivia has a very complicated geography it was much worse in the 19th century. At the time, nobody payed much attention to the limits at the “descampado de Atacama”. Not only it took then three weeks on mule back to go from La Paz, at 4000 meters of altitude, to the port of Cobija in the Pacific, but the highlanders were reluctant to travel down to the coast because of the risks of cholera, typhus and other infectious diseases common then. It is then not surprising that Chileans, who could reach the area by boat in a few days, were the first to explore its economic potential. It was the case of Jose Santos Ossa who discovered nitrate (salitre) and started its inductrial exploitation (the English were also involved but it is not true, as often stated, that their capitals were the only present there). For the same reason, at the time of the war of the Pacific, the population of the city of Antofagasta, then in Bolivian territory, was 80% Chilean! It is fair to say that Chile developed that area whereas Bolivia, which only has a few policeman and soldiers in the region, got tax money from the nitrate exports without contributing to its growth. In addition, Bolivian politicians signed a treaty in1904 concerning the two countries’ borders, which is legal today. One may argue that it was the corruption of the Bolivian authorities that led to this state of affairs but that is another problem. Natural barriers are powerful limit determinants as shows the fact that Alsace and Lorraine are French because of the Rhine river and the border between the US and Mexico was finally set at the Rio Grande. In Europe, for example, mountain ranges between France and Spain and France and Italy have defined the borders between these countries. In summary, after losing its colonies Spain left some borders that did not correspond to geographic realities. It is interesting to see that Evo Morales, whose ancestors has not seen the Pacific ocean for millennia has now claims to its independent access. A more realistic goal for Bolivia would be to improve its relationships with Chile in order to maintain and improve its access the the Pacific though Chilean ports. Of course, it could also be possible to grant a corridor to Bolivia along the Peruvian border but that would require Peru’s acceptance (Arica is the most logical access to the Pacific for Bolivia).

    • November 14, 2016 at 10:34 pm

      Chilean politicians signed two treaties in 1866 and 1874 concerning the two countries’ borders, and were legal at the time of the war of the Pacific. The border was at the parallel 24, AFTER Bolivia have been pushed all the way, almost from the parallel 26. Chile invaded Bolivia without notice and every aspect of its invasion goes against what is considered correct. For this reason it would be an act of justice the sovereign return of Bolivia to the waters of the Pacific,


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