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Chile-Peru border dispute moves from battlefield to courtroom

A five-year legal battle over a Chile-Peru territorial dispute ends tomorrow. Countries have gradually moved their conflicts to the legal arena, but how the losing country reacts to the verdict will be telling.

By Steven BodzinCorrespondent / December 13, 2012

Peru's President Ollanta Humala, left front, and Chile's President Sebastian Piñera, right front, walk to where they will make statements on their territorial dispute, in Lima, Peru, Nov. 30.

Karel Navarro/AP

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Santiago, Chile

Lawyers from Peru and Chile complete their arguments tomorrow in a trial to determine once and for all which country controls what acreage of the Pacific Ocean

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The trial will end a five-year process in which Peru has sought to expand its maritime territory, fixing a border that Peru claims was left undecided when the two countries finished the War of the Pacific in 1883.

That the two sides are fighting it out in a varnished wood courtroom rather than the battlefield shows how the world has changed in the last generation. Peru went to war with Ecuador over a patch of the Amazon in 1995, and Chile came close to war with Argentina in 1978 over control of part of Tierra del Fuego. Around the world, scores of boundaries remain in dispute, but countries have gradually moved their conflicts to the legal arena.

This route to resolving territorial disputes is freshly fragile. After the same court last month ruled against Colombia in a territorial dispute with Nicaragua, Bogota pulled out of a treaty committing it to respect the court’s decisions. The court's ruling this time around – and how Chile and Peru react to it – could set the tone for future cases around the region and the world.

“Maybe for Europeans and North Americans it seems very 19th century, people fighting over boundary lines. But it can become a salient issue in hands of politicians who want to use it for their own political ends,” says Charles Shapiro, president of the Institute of the Americas in La Jolla, California

Rally support

The conflict dates back to the 19th century, when Peru, Chile, and Bolivia fought the War of the Pacific for control of the mineral deposits of the Atacama desert. The resulting demarcation wasn’t agreed on until 1929, when the United States brokered a settlement between Peru and Chile. But Peru insists the sea border was never definitive, and that subsequent agreements creating a straight east-west marine limit were just fisheries agreements and not formal treaties.

Peru now wants to pivot the line toward the southwest, giving Peruvians more access to the anchovies widely used in fishmeal. Chile and Peru together produce most of the world’s fish meal, the dried, ground fish used as poultry food and fertilizer.

The fight is based in domestic politics, says Mr. Shapiro. “It’s a way to rally domestic support,” he says. 

Ahead of the trial, Chilean President Sebastian Piñera visited his Peruvian counterpart, Ollanta Humala, and both stated they would abide by the court’s ruling. But a decision that removes acreage from Chilean control will still be controversial — 73 percent of Chileans said in 2010 and 2011 polls that the government should refuse to recognize any loss of territory at the hearings in The Hague.

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