Latin American dispute goes to World Court

in: Inter Press Service English, English (19 december 2006)

Uruguay urged the International Court of Justice to force Argentina to take measures against environmental activists who block three access roads to Uruguay, where a controversial pulp mill factory is being constructed.

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The pulp mill is being constructed along the river Uruguay, in Fray Bentos, a city of 23,000 inhabitants and capital of the western Uruguayan department (province) of Río Negro. The river Uruguay marks a boundary between Argentina and Uruguay. Protests against this project were initiated by environmental organisations in Uruguay, but since 2003 they have been joined by residents groups in Gualeguaychú, the Argentine town located across the river. They fear the plant will pollute the river, hurting tourism, fishing and biodiversity.

Argentina shared their fears and brought the case to the International Court of Justice earlier this year, also objecting the construction of a second pulp mill along the river. Under the 1975 Statute of the River Uruguay all issues concerning the river must be agreed upon by both countries. On 13 July the Court ruled that Uruguay didn't have to stop building the factories, although a final ruling about the lawfulness of the mills is expected to take years.

When the World Bank decided to grant a loan to the Finnish company Metsa-Botnia to construct the plant in Fray Bentos on 21 November, Argentinean demonstrators have renewed their protests. They have blocked the bridge linking the country with its neighbour, claiming that they would camp on the road all Summer, if necessary. Since the factory is located at the border, Uruguay even deployed troops to protect the plant from possible attacks.

"The government of Argentina resorts to coercion because it is unwilling to wait for the legal process within the Court", lawyer Alan Boyle told the Court on behalf of Uruguay. "Beside the permanent blockade the government even allows protestors to block the other two bridges between our countries. This severely affects traffic and trade to Uruguay". Tourists from Argentina represent around 80 percent of foreign visitors to Uruguay during the summer high season (January and February). Montevideo claims the blockade has already cost them hundreds of millions.

Uruguay's Ambassador in France Mr. Héctor Gros Espiell told the Court that "the economic stranglehold of the blockade is an inappropriate pressure, which deeply aggravates the tensions between the countries. This economic pressure inflicts a serious breach of the rights of Uruguay." Uruguay wants Argentina to take all reasonable steps to prevent current and future blockades.

Ms. Susana Cerutti, legal counsel at the Argentinean Foreign Ministry, challenged the facts about the economic impact of the blockade. "They fly in the face of reality. Trade has been growing in the last year, just as the number of tourists crossing the border. One bridge is blocked permanently, but there is also plenty of air traffic and there are many ports with ferry connections, used by lots of tourists. The construction of the plant hasn't suffered from earlier roadblocks either."

"Botnia endlessly repeats that the factory will be ready in the end of 2007", added Marcello Kohen, Professor of International Law in Geneva. "That proves there is no strangulation of the Uruguayan economy."

The Arbitral Tribunal of Mercosur, the Southern Common Market trade bloc, in September unanimously ruled that the blockade violated free trade, according to Uruguay, but the Argentinean government hasn’t taken any steps that might prevent the blockade. "The police even stand by and do nothing, although sometimes not more than ten protestors block the bridge", said Mr. Conderelli, Law professor in Florence, on behalf of Uruguay. "Several ministers, even the head of government, Nestor Kirchner himself, have said they would never punish their brothers, the demonstrators. So the Argentinean government not only is inactive, but decides on the highest level to support the blockade. This is tantamount to blackmail."

He accused Argentina of making a diplomatic solution very difficult. "Last year Argentina chose to bring the case to the Court, but it is neglecting the very process that it started." In July The Court ruled that both countries should not take steps that aggravate the dispute. "To say it bluntly, Argentina aggravates the situation using illegal means."

The Argentinean spokespersons expressed their indignation about the tone and substance of Uruguay. They stressed that freedom of trade and freedom of circulation do not fall under the jurisdiction of the Court. "The 1975 Statute of the river Uruguay is the sole basis of jurisdiction of the Court", stated Mr. Kohen. "Why is Uruguay asking for provisional measures on the basis of rights that aren't found in the Statute?"

Botnia's 1.2 billion dollar factory is the single biggest foreign investment in the history of Uruguay. The plant will produce at least one million tons of paper pulp a year, while creating 2,500 direct and indirect jobs and accounting for the equivalent of two percent of this small South American country's gross domestic product, according to the World Bank. A second factory will be built by the Spanish company ENCE, but they decided last year to move to another spot along the river.

If the demand of Uruguay is accepted, Argentina will have to take every reasonable and appropriate action to stop the blockades. The final ruling about the underlying dispute is expected to take years, but the Court will likely rule within weeks on Uruguay's urgent request.

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