The United Nations' highest court rejected Monday landlocked Bolivia's bid to force Chile to the negotiating table over granting access to the Pacific Ocean.
In a legal ruling from the Hague-based International Court of Justice (ICJ) that was broadcast live throughout Bolivia, the 15-judge panel said that a string of agreements, memorandums and statements produced over decades of talks hadn't created a legal obligation on Chile to enter negotiations.
In a sweeping rejection of the Bolivian case, the court, by a 12-3 majority, dismissed eight different legal arguments presented by Bolivia's lawyers.
Bolivia lost its only coast to neighbouring Chile during an 1879-1883 war and the nation has demanded ocean access for generations.
At hearings in March, former Bolivian president Eduardo Rodríguez Veltze told judges: "Restoring Bolivia's sovereign access to the sea would make a small difference to Chile, but it would transform the destiny of Bolivia."
But Chile argued in court that its border with Bolivia was settled in a 1904 treaty and that it had no obligation to negotiate.
While rejecting Bolivia's request for judges to order Chile to negotiate, the world court's president, Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf, said the decision "should not be understood as precluding the parties from continuing their dialogue and exchanges, in a spirit of good neighbourliness, to address the issues relating to the landlocked situation of Bolivia, the solution to which they have both recognized to be a matter of mutual interest."
Bolivian President Evo Morales was in court for the ruling, sitting in the front row of his country's delegation in the wood-panelled Great Hall of Justice. He said little, other than to declare that he would never give up the fight on the issue.
"Bolivia will never give unp," Morales said in a brief statement without accepting questions from reporters as he left The Hague, accompanied by the Bolivian delegation.
The president underlined the call of the magistrates to continue with the dialogue between Santiago and La Paz. "In the report, although there is no obligation to negotiate, there is an invocation to continue a dialogue," he said.
Hailing the decision, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera said the ICJ "had delivered justice and has put things in their place."
"The court has delivered justice and has put things in their place, establishing clearly and categorically that Chile has never had any obligation to negotiate an outlet to the sea," Piñera said in a statement issued from the La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago.
The ruling was broadcast on giant screens at public squares in the Bolivian capital, La Paz, and in an indication of the significance of the decision for both counties, Catholic bishops in Bolivia and Chile on Sunday called on their congregations to accept the court's ruling "with faith, peace and good sense."
In Bolivia, groups linked to the government held public vigils to wait for the reading. As part of the preparations Sunday, a group of spiritual guides called yatiris from the Aymara ethnic group made an offering to the Pachamama, or earth mother, on Sunday in a plaza in La Paz for a ruling favourable to the Bolivians.