September 24, 2015 / 1:47 PM / 2 years ago

Chile laments World Court decision to hear Bolivia sea dispute

Chile's President Michelle Bachelet delivers a speech accompanied by politicians after a first ruling of the International Court of Justice of The Hague, at the government palace in Santiago, September 24, 2015.Ivan Alvarado

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Bolivia won the first round of its battle against Chile to gain unfettered access to the Pacific Ocean, as an International Court of Justice decision went in its favor, disappointing Chileans who had hoped the case would end on Thursday.

The ICJ, also known as the World Court, said on Thursday it will continue to hear the case brought by Bolivia against Chile, which seeks to force its neighbor to enter negotiations to grant it a corridor to the Pacific Ocean.

Chile had argued that the court had no jurisdiction to hear the case because of a 1904 Peace Treaty that fixed its border with Bolivia.

But on Thursday the court rejected Chile's argument, saying that Bolivia's claim that Chile has an obligation to negotiate "sovereign access" to the Pacific is not dealt with in that treaty.

“The matters in the dispute are not matters already settled by arrangements between the parties ... or governed by treaties in force,” Presiding Judge Ronny Abraham of France said, reading the 14-2 decision by the international panel of judges in The Hague.

But the dispute is far from over. The decision does not address the merit of Bolivia's case. It only means that the case will continue.

The court did not say when it would make a ruling, and neither side has advanced its actual arguments.

Bolivians gathered outside the court cheered the finding, and a beaming President Evo Morales said he was "enormously satisfied" with the result.

In Chile, where the decision had been closely followed and broadcast live, President Michelle Bachelet said: "We maintain the firm conviction that the Bolivian demand lacks all basis, as it confuses rights with aspirations."

Landlocked Bolivia lost access to the Pacific following an 1880s war, but it has remained a thorn in the side of relations with its more affluent Andean neighbor ever since.

In 2013, Bolivia took up the case with the court in the Hague, demanding Chile negotiate to grant it sovereign access.

Bolivia, which still retains a navy and wants a corridor to the sea to boost exports of natural gas and minerals, currently has low-cost access to Chilean ports.

The International Court of Justice is the United Nations' court for resolving disputes between countries. Its rulings are binding and cannot be appealed.

Additional reporting by Toby Sterling in Amsterdam and Rosalba O'Brien in Santiago; Editing by Dominic Evans and Jonathan Oatis

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