When emotions run high and both sides want to win, an impartial referee can prevent mayhem. This principle is on display at this week’s upcoming Super Bowl in New Jersey and also, far to the south, in the equatorial Pacific Ocean off South America.
For the past six years, Peru and Chile have disputed control of a swath of the Pacific off their western coastlines. They took their disagreement to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, which ruled on Monday on a new maritime border that largely favors Peru. Sebastian Pinera, Chile’s president, said in a televised address that although Chile disagreed with the decision, his nation would abide by it nonetheless.
The Peru-Chile case demonstrates the power, as well as the limits, of international tribunals to peaceably settle conflicting claims. It is a power that could help defuse some of the most troublesome potential conflicts of the 21st century, but it is only useful in situations where nations value peaceful and neutral arbitration over the exercise of raw power.
Peru and Chile are the perfect example of how this can work. At this moment in history, the governments in both places are stable, democratic and not particularly jingoistic. It is hard to imagine that the International Court of Justice could have been called upon to resolve a maritime boundary issue during the right-wing government of Gen. Augusto Pinochet in Chile, or under the corrupt and authoritarian government of Peru’s Alberto Fujimori. In fact, the Chilean government’s arrest and extradition of Fujimori in 2005 may have helped create the cooperative atmosphere in which the border dispute has now been resolved. Such a resolution is valuable insurance against some nationalist politician in either country trying to use the boundary issue to whip up domestic support in the future.
Does this case provide a useful example for settling the long-running dispute over the Falkland Islands? It would be nice to think so, but probably not. The convenient thing about the disputed territory between Chile and Peru is that nobody lives there except fish and marine mammals. There are thousands of native Falklanders who overwhelmingly prefer to be part of the United Kingdom, and no tribunal has a chance of persuading them otherwise. Britain would see conceding sovereignty as abandoning its own citizens. Meanwhile, Argentina seems disinclined to give up its claims regardless of what any outside panel might say, and Argentine governments are often eager to use the Falklands-versus-Malvinas dispute to distract attention from their own numerous failures.
Nor is an uninhabited zone, by itself, any guarantee that the parties disputing it will accept an outside verdict. China is engaged in multiple maritime disputes with several surrounding nations, including Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. As with the Chile-Peru dispute, the territory in question is essentially uninhabited, including the islands at the center of China’s controversy with Japan. Maybe the International Court of Justice will someday get the chance to settle these issues. Right now China’s military seems too interested in demonstrating its growing clout to seek outside mediation, and the civilian government appears disinclined to say no to the commanders.
There could be a better chance for the international court’s involvement in future conflicts in the polar regions. The Arctic basin is increasingly a global hot spot, despite the weather. Even the U.S. and Canada disagree over the right of free navigation there, as supported by the U.S., or the exercise of territorial sovereignty Canada claims in the straits that thread through the Arctic archipelago. If Ottawa and Washington cannot work out the issue on their own, they would be good candidates to involve the international court.
The United States only accepts the court’s jurisdiction on a case-by-case basis, but if we can’t accept it in a dispute involving our closest and most friendly neighbors, it is hard to see when we ever would. Besides, it could be a useful precedent to help resolve Arctic claims by Russia, which is aggressively pursuing what it says are its rights in the region, and even by China, a non-Arctic country that nevertheless says it has interests in the polar seas, if only because of the potential for cross-Arctic shipping. Regardless of whether the court decides in our favor, establishing a precedent for the court’s authority in the matter may be a worthwhile end in itself.
Against this geopolitical backdrop, the Chile-Peru dispute is just a baby step toward international justice. But it is, at least, a step that seems to go in the right direction.