Bolivia reacted on Monday to Chile’s claim for equal rights to a small cross-border river, saying Santiago’s case before the UN’s highest court was “hypothetical”.
Chile in 2016 dragged Bolivia before the International Court of Justice, asking judges to declare Silala an “international watercourse” and give it equal rights to use its waters.
“The subject matter of the Chilean request is mainly of a hypothetical nature,” Mathias Forteau, one of Bolivia’s lawyers, told judges at the ICJ – which decides in disputes between countries.
Forteau, a law professor at the Nanterre University in Paris, was referring to Santiago’s request that judges ask Bolivia to stop interfering with the Silala water supply to Chile through the Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on the planet.
“Bolivia has never, I emphasize, ever taken the smallest measure that could have blocked, hampered or in any way impeded the flow of water from the Silala River into Chilean territory,” said Forteau.
“Nor has it taken measures of any kind that could have prevented the Chilean state from using these waters,” he added.
In a legal game of ping-pong, Bolivia also counter-sued Chile, “asking the ICJ to determine that it had “sovereignty… Chile pays compensation.
Flowing for about eight kilometers, the Silala is a highly modified canal system that takes water from natural springs before being diverted to a reception area in Chile, footage showed at the hearing.
– ‘Strong Terms’ –
Former Bolivian president Evo Morales has tried to use the dispute as a bargaining chip in Bolivia’s larger struggle to gain access to the Pacific Ocean, which it lost to Chile in a 19th-century war.
But the ICJ in 2018 scuttled Bolivia’s candidacy, saying that Chile “had no case to respond to” as it “was not legally obligated to negotiate such a measure.”
At the time, Morales threatened to reduce the flow of Silala to the parched Atacama, Chile, and impose fees for its use.
Forteau said that “it is certain that the Bolivian authorities have made statements in the past”.
“Some of these statements may have been expressed in strong terms.”
But that’s the very nature of certain political speeches, not least because the two nations were at odds over the issue of access to the sea, Forteau said.
Chile and Bolivia have not had diplomatic ties since 1978, when Bolivia’s last attempt to negotiate a passage to the Pacific failed.
Chile in 2000 proposed formally negotiating the use of Silala’s waters and was willing to pay for it, but these discussions stalled when Bolivia raised the price.
Forteau, however, said Bolivia believes in international cooperation to resolve the Silala River dispute and not through “unilateral legal action.”
“The Chilean agent asked on Friday why we are still here, before the court,” he said.
“Well, with all due respect, the relevant question is, why are we here in the first place?” he said.
The hearings will continue for the rest of the week.
A final judgment, however, can take months, if not years.
Once rendered, ICJ judgments are binding and cannot be appealed.