Next week brings an important moment for Latin American maritime border relations and transnational cooperation. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is set to announce on Monday, January 27 its decision in the dispute between Peru and Chile involving nearly 40,000 square kilometers of the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of the continent. Not only does the court’s decision have implications for the Chile-Peru relationship, but the ruling will test the respect that the countries have for the court’s mediation and the dynamics of the developing Pacific Alliance.
The core of the dispute between Chile and Peru lies in an historical ambiguity regarding two areas of water. Peru filed with the ICJ in 2008 to contest Chile’s assertion that maritime zones had previously been enumerated, starting at the coast and then proceeding along a parallel of latitude. Chile in turn contests Peru’s claim to an area of water within the limit of 200 nautical miles from the Chilean coast but outside Chile’s continental shelf. Both countries’ presidents have stated publicly that they will abide by the court’s ruling, but the haste and degree of compliance remains to be seen.

Although not a precedent or likely predictor for Chile and Peru’s reaction to Monday’s announcement, the ICJ’s 2012 ruling regarding Caribbean Sea boundaries between Colombia and Nicaragua remains far from settled. Following the court’s decision to allow Colombia to continue its control of the San Andrés Islands, but in a surprise move granting Nicaragua the area of water extending from its coastline to the waters, the Colombian government has refused to withdraw ships from the waters. The Santos Administration also announced that it would no longer recognize the jurisdiction of the ICJ and would be withdrawing from the 1948 Pact of Bogota that allows countries in the Americas to bring disputes in front of the ICJ. Diplomatic relations between Colombia and Nicaragua remain tense, calling into question the future efficacy of international organizations in Latin America. It does not take a scholar of international maritime law to recognize that each time a Latin American country’s response to an unsatisfactory decision is withdrawal, the strength of multilateral organizations to mediate disputes erodes.

There are many factors pointing to a different response from the Peruvian and Chilean governments, most notably the countries’ close economic partnership. Their membership in the Pacific Alliance trade has been a boon: estimates show that economies in the alliance (Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Mexico) are predicted to grow an average of 4.25% in 2014. Neither side appears keen to react as Colombia has to the ICJ ruling as any grandstanding might weaken efforts to bolster an increasingly prosperous partnership. Chilean officials have noted, however, that any changes to the status quo (which favors Chile) will not be immediate: it could take up to a year to reallocate responsibilities for the disputed region of the ocean. It will therefore be most interesting to observe initial reactions from officials of all levels in both countries.

This maritime dispute is not a recent news item; indeed, the nautical area in question has been in flux since the conclusion of the War of the Pacific in the 1880s. What will be noteworthy, however, is the willingness of Chile and Peru, in their new prospects for economic integration, to acknowledge the ruling of the court and move forward with all deliberate speed to settle the maritime boundaries. It will be a test of a new bilateral alliance in the face of longstanding and lingering territorial disagreement.