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World court: scant disagreement in Chile, Bolivia water row

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THE HAGUE — The International Court of Justice on Thursday found little to rule on in a long-running dispute over a small river which flows from Bolivia to Chile as the Latin American neighbors had mostly resolved their conflict during the proceedings.

The United Nations’ highest court spent most of the hour-long hearing explaining that the two countries’ legal claims over the Silala River – a short waterway in the Atacama Desert – were “without objection” as both countries have now agreed on how the water should be managed.

“It is an international watercourse, as both parties now agree,” said an American judge Joan E. Donoghue, who serves as the court’s president. Bolivia had initially rejected this designation since international law requires international water resources to be managed cooperatively.

Chile brought the claim to the Hague-based court in 2016, arguing that Bolivia was violating international water laws by blocking the flow of the river. During hearings in April, Bolivia claimed the waterway isn’t a river at all, but rather a series of underground springs forced above ground by Chilean construction.

A 1997 U.N. convention on water rights requires countries whose borders intersect major waterways to share the natural resource equally.

In the past six years of legal proceedings in the case, the two countries significantly narrowed the scope of their disagreement through diplomatic efforts, eventually agreeing on all but several minor technical points.

Chile demanded that Bolivia notify it before carrying out certain activities on the waterway, but the court rejected this request as having no basis in international law.

Chile said Thursday’s ruling was a victory.

“The court is now only restating the fact that Bolivia has accepted all that Chile came for,” Ximena Fuentes, Chile’s vice-minister for foreign affairs, told reporters following the hearing.

Bolivia’s legal team left the court without commenting the ruling.

”It is recognized that Chile’s historical use and its current use of the waters of the Silala River is in accordance with the equitable and reasonable use established by international law,” said Chilean President Gabriel Boric after the ruling.

“Our country can rest easy with this court ruling,” he said. “We have obtained the legal certainty that we were looking for and the disputed issues have been definitively resolved.”

Bolivian President Luis Arce said in a Twitter post that “Bolivia has resolved a controversy with a brother nation.” The ruling of the International Court of Justice “ratifies our rights over the waters of Silala and our sovereignty over the dismantling of the artificial canals,” he wrote.

Bolivian Foreign Minister Rogelio Mayta said “the ruling gives us important certainties.” The court “made it clear that Bolivia has the right to the channeling” that was done in “its territory” to improve the water flow and to “recover wetlands that have been deteriorated” by these works, Mayta said.

The court called on the two countries that have had no diplomatic relations since 1978 to work together to manage the Silala waters. Chile and Bolivia should “conduct consultations on an ongoing basis, in a spirit of cooperation,” presiding judge Donoghue said.

This is the second time the two Latin American neighbors have taken a dispute to the International Court of Justice. In 2018, judges sided with Chile, finding the country was not legally obliged to give sea access to its landlocked neighbor.

Bolivia has not always been cut off from the ocean. It lost its sliver of coastline to Chile in an 1879-1883 war and has been unhappy with the outcome ever since.



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