Tensions Build between Chile and Peru on Maritime Border Dispute

Article excerpt

The governments of Chile and Peru have come into conflict regarding the way their borders should be drawn in the Pacific Ocean. Peru's interpretation of its maritime rights would allow it access to tens of thousands of sq km of rich fishing territory, while Chile has gone on a diplomatic offensive to get other nations to recognize its rights to the zone. The crisis deepened after Peru's legislature passed a law that unilaterally redefined Peru's ocean boundaries and badly strained diplomatic relations between the neighboring countries.

Peruvian Congress passes new definition of ocean borders

On Nov. 3, Peru's Congress unanimously passed a bill that changed the baseline that defines its maritime border with Chile. By a 98-0 vote, the Peruvian government decided to remap its ocean border, an initiative that President Alejandro Toledo signed the same day and that went into effect Nov. 5.

Chile delivered a protest letter to Peru, saying that it was a violation of international law and that Peru had disregarded agreements the two countries signed in 1952 and 1954. Peru contends that the borders have never been clearly defined and that the 1950s agreements only determined fishing areas, not national borders.

Chile believes that a line extending parallel to latitude, starting at the point of the two countries' border and running horizontally, is the appropriate measure of its rights according to the treaties negotiated and signed decades ago. The border lies between the cities of Tacna, Peru, and Arica, Chile. The new law creates shore reference points that enable Peru to move the ocean boundary between the two countries farther south.

Peru's law establishes a line that would be equidistant from the two countries' shorelines, meaning it would extend diagonally, relative to the equator, 370 km to the southwest. Peru's initiative would increase its ocean rights over an area of some 35,000 sq km. The area contains rich fishing waters and possibly other resources.

Under the Chilean interpretation that the line should extend parallel to the equator, Peru's ocean rights relative to its southern shores are much smaller. For example, a boat launching from Ilo, Peru, could only fish a region 74 km southwest of its shore. Under the new law, it could travel well over twice that far and still be in Peruvian waters.

Since the two countries are the world's two main producers of fishmeal, Roberto Toso of ECOFIN International LLC says this means fishing waters are of special industrial importance to them. The issue of ocean rights could make or break many artisan fisheries in the border regions of the two nations.

The maritime border has long been a sticking point between Peru and Chile and an aggravating factor in military buildup, particularly with the much wealthier and better-armed Chile (see NotiSur, 2004-03-05 and 2004-10-08).

Chilean President Ricardo Lagos said that Chile "will continue to exercise full sovereignty" over the area of the Pacific Ocean that Peru claimed in the Nov. 3 bill.

Chile issued a formal protest of the bill defining maritime rights in the waters near the two countries' border. Just prior to its passage, Chilean Foreign Minister Ignacio Walker said the legislation "would absolutely lack any international juridical effects whatsoever."

Defense Minister Jaime Ravinet said, "Our armed forces will safeguard our borders."

Countries suspend trade talks, joint military projects

The maritime-border crisis led the two governments to cease work on talks to increase trade in an Acuerdo de Complementacion Economica (ACE). It also led to a suspension of joint military-training projects and a cancellation of bilateral meetings between military commanders.

Chile's Foreign Relations Ministry sought support for its position from the governments of Brazil, Ecuador, and Argentina. Lima's government said it was preparing to take its case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. …