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World court: Bolivia, Chile close together in river dispute

THE HAGUE (AP) — The United Nations’ highest court found little to rule on Thursday 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 6-year proceedings.

The International Court of Justice spent most of the hour-long hearing announcing the legal claims over the Silala River – a short waterway in the Atacama Desert – were “without object” as both countries now agreed on how the water system should be managed.

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

Chile brought the claim to The Hague-based court in 2016, arguing 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.

However, during the 6 intervening years, the two countries dramatically narrowed the scope of their disagreement via diplomatic means, 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.

Santiago saw the court’s ruling as a victory. “The court is now only restating the fact that Bolivia has accepted all that Chile came for,” Ximean Fuentes, Chile’s vice-minister for foreign affairs, told reporters following the hearing. Bolivia’s legal team left without speaking to the media.

The court stressed that the two countries, who have not had diplomatic relations since 1978, needed to work together to manage the Silala waters. The countries should “conduct consultations on an ongoing basis, in a spirit of cooperation,” Donoghue said.

It isn’t the first time the neighbors have used the court to settle their disputes. In 2018, judges sided with Chile, finding the country was not legally obliged to give sea access to its landlocked neighbor. Bolivia was not always cut off from the ocean. It lost its only coastline to Chile in an 1879-1883 war and has been unhappy with the outcome ever since.

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