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The ICJ as an Effective Conflict Prevention Tool in Latin America

Courtesy of Siobhan Rohlwink-Coutts/Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

This article was originally published by E-International Relations (E-IR) on 4 April 2017.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has made a name for itself as various governments across the world resort to it to rule on inter-state disagreements. There are certainly valid criticisms about how the ICJ, the chief judicial body of the United Nations, operates, particularly as African governments have accused it of imposing Eurocentric international law. Some of its rulings on controversial cases have even been denounced as ‘step[s] backwards’.

Despite these criticisms, Latin American governments have regularly turned to ICJ rulings on border disputes and other inter-state disagreements.  Over the past decades, the Court has ruled on numerous cases between Latin American states and enjoys a positive record so far in this region, given the generally peaceful compliance of Latin American states to the Court’s rulings. Nevertheless, the complexity of one particular case, ‘Obligation to Negotiate Access to the Pacific Ocean’, a historically-charged territorial dispute between Bolivia and Chile, may prove to challenge the credibility of the ICJ in Latin America in the near future.

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Under the Radar: The Territorial Dispute between Guatemala and Belize

Border crossing from Belize at Melchor de Mencos, Guatemala

Border crossing from Belize at Melchor de Mencos, Guatemala. Photo: Lisa B/flickr

The late twentieth century saw a wave of democratic transitions in Latin America and Eastern Europe. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the former Soviet republics became independent states in their own right, while countries in Latin America began to break away from their colonial pasts, as well as from the dictatorships and civil wars that followed independence in the 19th century. While Huntington’s famous ‘third wave’ of democracy saw the emergence of democratic structures in previously autocratic regimes, unresolved territorial claims, border disputes and questions surrounding the relationship between self-determination and sovereignty continue to affect regional security in Latin America today.

Guatemala and Belize are two countries that have been embroiled in a territorial dispute over land and maritime boundaries since the 19th century. Guatemala  once claimed all of modern-day Belize (which it borders to the Northeast) as its territory, but today restricts its claims to the southern half of the country and its islands. » More