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Peru Restarts War of the Pacific with UN Lawsuit against Chile

March 21, 2009 (Southern Affairs) -- Peru, home of the ancient Incan Empire, is trying to win back by reason what it lost by force. On March 19, Peru asked the United Nations to settle a century-old dispute with its southern neighbor Chile over some of South America's richest fishing grounds.

Jose Garcia Belaunde, Peru's foreign minister, wants the UN's International Court of Justice in The Hague to hear its claims to an area of about 50,000 kilometers of ocean off its southern coast claimed by Chile since the 19th century War of the Pacific. Chile is having none of it.

"Chile will continue to exercise sovereignty over maritime areas under Chilean jurisdiction," Mariano Fernandez, Chile's foreign minister said on March 19. However, in an interview the day before Peru presented its arguments to The Hague, Peru's Garcia Belaunde said, "the Chileans have to accept that it is the court that decides this.

If the UN accepts Peru's plea, at one time Spain's most powerful American viceroyalty, it would put Chile in a difficult spot. "It's a complicated situation," said Eduardo Araya, director of the history institute in Chile’s Universidad Catolica de Valparaiso. "If Chile doesn’t accept the ruling, it would create problems in their legal relations. However, the Chilean government risks a strong political backlash if it ever agreed to cede territory to Peru. No one would risk it."

Chile took control of the territory in 1881 after its Navy occupied Lima during what is known as the War of the Pacific, Araya said. Chile claims the current border was established by treaties in 1952 and 1954 that also establish Peru's border with Ecuador. Last year, Peru’s President Alan Garcia filed a lawsuit seeking rights to the fishing waters saying the dispute was never settled.

While both countries want to minimize collateral damage, Garcia Belaunde said Chile could retaliate to force Peru to withdraw the suit. Chile "could impose sanctions against Peru," Garcia Belaunde said, but "our idea of submitting this to international jurisdiction is to avoid the issue affecting our economic relations."

Southern Affairs --


  1. It would be curious to see if the ICJ accepts Peru's case. I'm not clear on exactly what Peru's legal reasoning, though. Are the treaties in 1952 and 1954 silent or vague about the maritime boundaries between them?
    Also what about in practice? I am not well versed in maritime law but I think customary behavior plays an important role in boundary disputes. Has the area been used mainly by the Chilean vessels/fishermen? If so, grounds for Peru's plea may be too weak.
    On the other hand, Eduardo Araya is using a tone that would suggest that not only Peru has a strong legal basis for the claim but also the ICJ would rule in Peru's favor.
    What is the historical background to this case?
    As a separate fact, I always found it interesting that a country cannot enjoy ownership over a marine territory beyond 12 miles from the coast but can only exercise sovereignty over it - until 250 miles from the coast.


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