The Hague’s impending decision on whether it has jurisdiction to rule on a case concerning Bolivia’s sovereign access to the sea could, and most certainly will, have a great impact on Bolivia and its future.
As it stands today, Bolivia is one of the world’s 32 landlocked developing countries, but this wasn’t always the case.
A longstanding dispute
Since gaining its independence from Spain in 1825, Bolivia has endured territorial losses on every front. The most crucial of these occurred after the War of the Pacific (1879–1883).
This battle between Bolivia, Chile and Peru entailed territorial disputes over the mineral-rich and ecologically significant Antofagasta region in the Atacama Desert, an area sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Andes mountains to the east.
Bolivia lost the war, resulting in the country signing the Treaty of Peace and Friendship in 1904, and consequently having to surrender some of its land to Chile. But the land lost wasn’t just any territory — it was Bolivia’s only access to the sea.
Being landlocked is highly disadvantageous for a nation. It can hinder a number of developmental aspects, including poor access to markets, a lack of adequate finance and technology and inability to develope a skilled labor force and critical infrastructure and utilities.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea determined, in Article 125, that “Land-locked States shall have the right of access to and from the sea…” and “To this end, land-locked States shall enjoy freedom of transit through the territory of transit States by all means of transport.”
From this perspective, Chile has met its obligations regarding international law.
“Chile provides Bolivia with free commercial transit through its ports at an annual cost of US$100 million. Bolivia not only counts on its own customs authorities, it also benefits from preferential treatment and tariffs,” reports Valerie Dekimpe for the PanAm Post. “In March 2014, of the 763,000 tons of goods mobilized in the port of Arica, 81 percent was Bolivian load.”
But these advantages fall short in comparison to the gains Bolivia could make if Chile were removed as a middleman.
According to a report by the World Bank, being landlocked results in an overall higher cost of access to global markets, while reducing trade volume to just 60 percent of that of a comparable coastal country.
In addition to economic factors, landlocked countries lag behind their maritime counterparts in regards to human development.
A paper published by the U.N. Millennium Project concluded that, “The average Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita of landlocked countries is approximately 57% that of their maritime neighbours. Life expectancy index scores are 0.3 lower on average, equivalent to 3.5 years, and education index scores are 0.36 lower. Progress in many landlocked developing countries has also been slow.”
What Bolivia stands to gain
If The Hague’s International Court of Justice (ICJ) decides to hear the case and rules in Bolivia’s favor, the country stands to gain tremendously, on more than one front.
First, it would no longer have to pay access costs to Chile, saving it around $100 million each year.
It could also regain ownership over the copper-rich Antofagasta region, boosting its export income significantly since the world’s largest copper reserve, the Escondida Copper Mine, is located in this disputed area. Production levels at Escondida are projected to reach more than 1.3 million tons in 2015.
The economic upside is the most obvious benefit, but just as significant would be the nationalist support that could, and already has emerged, said Sinclair Thomson, an associate professor of history at New York University who specializes in Bolivian history and politics.
“At stake is a principle of national sovereignty which is historically very deeply rooted in the country, with significant legal, political, and cultural implications, and one that unifies Bolivians over and above their sharp regional, class and ethnic divisions,” he said.
Even more potentially impactful is what this could mean for Evo Morales, the current president of Bolivia.
“The Morales government has already gained substantial benefits from bringing the case the international tribunal. It has galvanized public opinion in the country, unifying different sectors and making allies of former enemies,” Thomson asserted.
This could make it easier, he said, for the administration to campaign for another constitutional amendment like the one passed in 2009, allowing Morales to run for office for a fourth term.
The ICJ is expected to announce whether it will hear the case by the end of this year.
“If the court decides not to hear the case, it would be a major defeat for Bolivia,” said Thomson, “and could set back the country’s cause for another century.”