Public international law in Latin America
Bolivia v Chile
ICJ rules on long-running inter-state dispute
On 1 October 2018, the UN’s International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague in The Netherlands ruled entirely in favour of Chile in a high-profile dispute that had its origins in the 1880s.
We were counsel for Chile in a claim centred on Bolivia alleging that Chile had undertaken an obligation to negotiate sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean for Bolivia.
War and peace in Latin America
The case had its roots in the War of the Pacific between Chile, Bolivia and Peru. It ended in 1884 and resulted in Bolivia losing its territory adjacent to the Pacific coast.
The 1904 peace treaty between Bolivia and Chile delimited the boundary between the two countries and stated that the territory occupied by Chile belonged to the country ‘in perpetuity’.
Under the treaty, Chile also agreed to build a railway between its port of Arica and La Paz, Bolivia's capital, and allow Bolivia a right of free transit across its territory and in its ports.
The railway was completed in 1913.
Claim in Europe
The two states later had intermittent interactions over whether Chile would be willing to grant to Bolivia sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean. Bolivia claimed that these interactions created a legal obligation on Chile to negotiate sovereign access to the sea for Bolivia.
In 2013, Bolivia initiated proceedings against Chile by lodging an application with the Netherlands-based ICJ. Chile called on Freshfields to act as counsel for its defence.
Over the following five years, we worked with Chilean government ministers and senior civil servants, along with academics and barristers from the US, UK, France and Argentina, to develop and present Chile’s response.
We worked with Chilean government ministers and senior civil servants, along with academics and barristers, to develop Chile’s response.
Much of the work involved looking at official documents – treaties, pacts, diplomatic correspondence and so on – that the two countries had exchanged over the preceding 125 years or so.
With dozens of people from a range of backgrounds involved, making submissions to the ICJ required careful thought and co-ordination. Freshfields conducted the orchestra and ensured that a single coherent strategy was devised and executed.
Making submissions to the ICJ required careful thought and co-ordination.
The ICJ’s decision
In March 2018, the ICJ heard the parties’ oral arguments. Six months later, the ICJ, in its judgment (PDF), went through the numerous interactions on which Bolivia relied, spanning more than a century’s worth of facts.
It then set out each of the eight legal bases that Bolivia invoked – and rejected each and every one of them.
The ICJ set out the eight legal bases that Bolivia invoked – and rejected each and every one of them.
A very public occasion
This case has for many years been one of the highest profile disputes in Latin America. The ICJ’s reading of its judgment was watched live on big screens in public squares in Bolivia and Chile, and the case got significant coverage in the international media.
President Piñera of Chile made a national address minutes after the judgment had been read by the ICJ. He also sent his thanks and congratulations to our team.
The judgment was watched live on big screens in public squares in Bolivia and Chile.
The positive outcome for Chile was rooted in our team’s detailed analysis of the facts and the law, which it had painstakingly collated, analysed and presented to the ICJ over a period more than five years.