Bolivia battles Chile at UN's top court for sea access

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The Hague (AFP)

Landlocked Bolivia took its neighbour Chile to court on Monday, seeking to resolve a century-old dispute over precious access to the Pacific Ocean which has bedevilled bilateral ties.

La Paz is urging Santiago to reopen talks, contending it has "an obligation to negotiate with Bolivia in order to reach an agreement granting Bolivia a fully sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean."

In a sign of the country's determination, Bolivian President Evo Morales is heading up the Bolivian delegation to the UN's highest court, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), based in The Hague.

"We have history, justice and right on our side," Morales said in a Tweet as seven days of hearings into the case opened in The Hague.

Bolivia, South America's poorest country, became landlocked after losing a four-year war against Chile in 1883, forfeiting territory and its access to the sea.

Following some 130 years of fruitless negotiations with Santiago, La Paz lodged a complaint with the ICJ in April 2013.

"We have waited a long time for this opportunity, but we are a patient and determined people," said former Bolivian president Eduardo Rodriguez Veltze, addressing the court.

Chile had made "a repeated and consistent commitment to Bolivia to end its landlocked situation," he maintained, saying the lack of sea access had had a devastating effect on the impoverished country's development.

"By fulfilling this promise to its neighbour, two countries united by culture, geography, history and fraternal spirit can heal all wounds and move forward," Veltze added.

The "entire Bolivian nation" was tuning into the proceedings in The Hague via giant screens erected in their cities, he said.

"We are here with one voice in pursuit of justice," he said, explaining the country once had 400 kilometres (248 miles) of coastline in the Atacama desert.

"Today it has none," he said.

According to estimates, Bolivia's "annual GDP growth would be at least 20 percent higher" if it had not been stripped of a sea access.

- 'An old debt' -

Its transport costs are estimated to be 31 percent higher than the continental average, Veltze said.

"More than a century has passed since the Chilean invasion of Bolivia's coast... an act of aggression that resulted in territorial dismemberment and the painful loss of sovereign access to the sea."

Allowing access "would make a small difference to Chile, but it would transform the destiny of Bolivia," Veltze said.

After the opening days on Monday and Tuesday, Chile will get to make its counter-argument at the court on Thursday and Friday.

Two more days of hearings are set for next week, but Chile has insisted it is under no legal obligation to negotiate as the issue was hammered out under a 1904 treaty.

"All we have seen this morning is an attempt to open a back door to precisely undermine the 1904 treaty and that is something we will not accept," said Chilean Foreign Minister Roberto Ampuero after Monday's hearing.

"The 1904 treaty is there, it was accepted, it was signed by both parties and must be respected."

But international lawyer Vaughan Lowe, representing Bolivia, shot back that "contemporary modern law demands more than 19th century isolationism".

The two countries have not had formal diplomatic relations since 1978. Santiago has meanwhile opened its own case against Bolivia over the Silala waterway, which flows into the parched Atacama and which La Paz has threatened to divert.

About two dozen Bolivian activists have also arrived in The Hague from around Europe to support La Paz.

"This is an old debt that needs to be settled," Amancay Colque told AFP, as they held up a large flag outside the Peace Palace.

The loss of the Chuquicamata mine, the world's largest open-pit copper mine which is situated in the disputed area, had badly hit the country?s indigenous peoples, Colque said.

"This is about justice, we want this to be addressed. We want Chile to fulfil its promises, and we want it done in a peaceful way," she added.