Ecuador-Peru Boundary Dispute: Liberal and Realist Explanation

20 Jul 2010 by Fausto Sicha, No Comments »

 By: Fausto Sicha

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          The boundary dispute between Ecuador and Peru has been a painful experience that nationals from both countries have had to endure. “The dispute is not only one of the major international issues of Latin America, but it is also dangerous, because it’s long history has clothed it with considerations of national prestige and honor and because it involves a very considerable extent of territory with which neither country is willing to depart.”[1] The boundary disputes between these two countries can be traced back to colonial days and are due largely to the uncertainty as to the limits of colonial territorial divisions.[2]

          During colonial time, the King of Spain sent voluminous instructions to his overseas officials. These instructions were called cedulas and they “often involved the transfer of territory from one jurisdiction to another, but they were in many instances so ambiguous, inconsistent, or openly contradictory to other decrees that the royal officials were unable to reconcile their instructions and thus left them unexecuted.”[3] Furthermore, from a physiographical point of view, the border between Ecuador and Peru lacks decisive natural boundaries that can facilitate the drawing of political frontiers.[4]

           The Spanish domination in the American continent was divided into two administrative areas; the Viceroyalty of New Spain (Mexico) established in 1535, and the Viceroyalty of Peru which was established in 1542 and was divided into eleven audiences – among them was the Viceroyalty of New Granada.[5] The cedula of 1802 separated for ecclesiastical purposes the provinces of Mainas and Quijos, except Papallacta, from the Viceroylaty of New Granada and transferred them to the Viceroyalty of Peru. This decree aimed to improve the Spanish mission in the area today known to Peruvians as the Department of Amazonas and Loreto, and to Ecuadorians as the Oriente.[6] Peruvians claim that this cedula transferred territory to the Viceroyalty of Peru, but on the other hand, “the Ecuadorians attack the claims of Peru based on the Cedula of 1802 on the ground that it did not separate the territory of Maynas from the Viceroyalty of New Granada and add it to that of Peru; for the decree was merely intended as an administrative measure for ecclesiastical purposes and did not signify formal transfer of political power….Ecuadorians also contend that in ‘colonial days changes of jurisdiction were often made without involving alterations of territory’…furthermore, Ecuadorians contend that the report of 1799 requested two separations; that of government, and that of territory. However, the King of Spain ordered that only the first of the two requests should be carried out.[7]

          Because each party espouses a position that diverges sharply from the other, the boundary dispute has not been resolved and it has led to wars between these two countries in 1941, 1981, and 1995. (Due to limited space in this paper, I will not talk about the 1981 Paquisha War, because it was very small.)  Since one conflict led to the other by leaving the dispute unsettled, this paper aims to explain these conflicts from the point of view of realism and liberalism. With each perspective I will try to explain among other things; anarchy as a potential source of conflict, the security dilemma, the validity of internal law, the role of the state and of individuals (governments), and the role that the Organization of American States (OAS) played during and after the conflict.

          From the point of view of realists the 1941 war between Ecuador and Peru can be explained by the structure of the international system. Realists argue that the international system is anarchical and that “wars occur because there is nothing to prevent them.”[8] Realists would claim that despite the diplomatic efforts that were made in order to avoid conflict, the war in 1941 occurred because there is no a strong central international authority that can induce Ecuador and Peru into obedience and force them to settle their dispute pacifically. Realists would also argue that we live in a world of self-help, and because of this condition they can explain that in 1941 Ecuador had no choice but defend itself event thought the Ecuadorian army was almost defenseless.[9] The fact that Ecuador lost almost half of its territory during this war only confirms the realists assumptions that in the international systems each state is on its own, that there is no central authority that can come to the defense of the weak state and restrict the aggressor, and that the international system is a system of self-help.

          Liberals on the other hand recognize that the structure of the international system is anarchic, but they also claim that anarchy no necessarily drives a country to war. According to liberals states do cooperate in the anarchical world, and they do so because they realize that they will have continuous interactions with the same actors.[10] Liberals would claim that the 1941, 1981, and 1995 wars are not the result of anarchy, but the result of misunderstandings, miscommunications and the lack of trust in international institutions like the OAS that can help to find a peaceful solution to the conflict.

          When the 1941 conflict erupted the battle was concentrated in Zarumilla-Chacras. “The Peruvian Colonel Manuel Odria decisively defeated the Ecuadorian forces who soon thereafter laid down their arms…shortly after the outbreak of hostilities, the United States, Brazil, and Argentina offered their friendly services as mediators of the conflict. At the conference of Western Hemisphere Foreign Ministers which met in Rio de Janeiro in January, 1942, the so called ‘Protocol of Peace, Friendship and Boundaries’ [also known as Rio Protocol] was drawn up and signed by the Foreign Ministers of the contracting parties and those of mediatory powers, to which Chile was added. Subsequently the Protocol was ratified, the Peruvian legislature voting for it unanimously, while an extraordinary Congress in Ecuador approved it on plurality basis.

          “The boundary line which the protocol provided for not only caused Ecuador to lose two-thirds of the Oriente she had previously considered hers but also deprived her of an outlet to the Amazon River.”[11] In six years, from 1942 to 1948, the Ecuador-Peru Boundary Commission, with help of the guarantors of the Rio Protocol –United States, Chile, Brazil, and Argentina- was able to reach a definite demarcation of over 95% of the border without incident and in accordance to the Protocol stipulations.[12]

          In explaining the lost of territory for part of Ecuador, realists would argue that “power prevails over justice in international politics [and that] necessity [of survival or self help] is the agent that overcomes moral obligations.”[13] In a world of self help, realists would say, “the strong [in this case Peru] do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”[14]Realists would also contend that due to the lack of an international central authority “the weaker country [Ecuador] had little choice but to accept the outcome of the conference” in Rio de Janeiro.[15] Furthermore, realists would explain Peru’s behavior by saying that it wanted to maximize its aggregate power and was therefore predisposed to expansionist policies.[16] Realists argue that “it is the dynamic of the system which compel states to behave in certain ways if they wish to survive.”[17]

          Liberals on the other hand would justify Peru’s actions by saying that “the actual occupation of the disputed [territory] for a long period lends much weight to the Peruvian claim to the region by the doctrine of prescription, recognized in international law and practical in international relations.”[18]

          In trying to explain the ongoing border dispute, realists would claim that the conflicts between these two countries are the result of the security dilemma and the shifting balance of power. According to realists states “regard each other with suspicion, and they worry that war might be in the offing.…The basis of this fear is that in a world where [states] have the capability to attack each other and might have the motive to do so, any state bent on survival must be at least suspicious of other states and reluctant to trust them.”[19] From this point of view, realists seem to accurately explain the conflict between the aforementioned countries. For example, “by the early 1990s, internal political dynamics had come to favor Ecuador, historically the weaker party in the border dispute. At that time, Peru was experiencing the most profound domestic crisis in its modern history. Successive elected governments had failed to deal effectively with the multiple challenges of (1) obligations to come up with high repayments on its foreign debt, (2) severe internal economic problems, and (3) a serious threat from the Maoist guerrilla group known as Shining Path.”[20] Ecuador, aware that power has shifted in its favor and knowing that “from a military standpoint, Peru suffered from significant disadvantages, which made moving troops and supplies to the frontier exceedingly difficult”[21] took advantage in 1995 and allegedly infiltrate troops into Peruvian territory, perhaps hopping that this time it can get back part of the territory that lost in 1941 or at least settle the dispute under favorable terms.

          In response to the Ecuadorian incursion, Peru even though it was ill prepare to retaliate the Ecuadorian troops, in a world of self-help took matters into its own hands first by probing and then by rushing into a confrontation in the jungle of La Cordillera del Condor.[22] However, this time “the fighting was limited, quite specifically, to the area under dispute in the Upper Cenepa Valley.”[23] – The remaining 5% of the border that was left unsettled by the Ecuador-Peru Commission in 1948.

          The Upper Cenapa Valley had not been demarcated because “an anomaly that was not foreseen in the [Rio Treaty] arose after a mapping of the region, carried out by the US Army Corps, was completed in 1946…the aerial survey revealed that the high of the land that was to determine the border was not where the agreement had stipulated in one small section because of the presence of a previously uncharted river and a mountain spur.”[24] It is this area – the Cordillera del condor and the Cenepa River area,- which totals about 78 kilometers of the Zamora-Santiago-Yaupi Rivers segment, specified in the Rio Protocol that has been the primary focus of hostilities since 1942.[25]

          Liberal scholars would claim that the beginning of hostilities for part of Ecuador in 1995 is not the result of the shifting balance of power, but the lack of desire from part of Ecuador to honor the procedure established in the Rio Protocol, and to respect the international law created by it. Liberals would claim that “the 1942 Protocol constitutes a treaty that is binding under international law and that consequently supersedes the earlier, 19th-century [agreements]” [26]For liberals, the Ecuadorian claim that part of the Rio the Janeiro Protocol cannot be executed due to the absence of a watershed between the Zamora and Santiago Rives[27] is inexcusable, because article 9 of the Rio Protocol says “the parties may, however, when the line is being laid out on the ground, grant such reciprocal concessions as they may consider advisable in order to adjust the line to geographical realities.”[28] Liberals “believe that it is possible to substantially reduce the scourge of war and to increase international prosperity” by respecting international law and by the creation of international organisms like the OAS that can help to deal with a variety of problems. Liberals would also contend that in so many cases international law constrains state’s behavior, and to prove this claim they will point out to the fact that since 1942 the two wars between Ecuador and Peru took place in the area that has not yet been demarcated. Since hostilities have stopped along the area that was demarcated by the Rio Protocol, liberals can claim that international law is effective.

          Realists who have a different view of the value of international law would claim that when it comes to deciding whether to respect the law or to infringe it, states must always act according to their national interest. If it suits the state to respect international law, then it should be done so, if it violates its sovereignty or diminishes power or authority then the state or whoever acts on its behalf should not be concerned about morality or respect for the law. For realists international law is just another tool that states can use to advance their own agendas and to maximize their power. In a world that predisposition to cheat is always present; a state cannot take a chance by respecting international law without knowing how the other party or states will respond.

          To defend their view about international law realists would point out that in 1942 the Ecuadorian government was forced to accept the terms of international law (Rio Protocol terms) because reluctance to do otherwise would have meant the persistence of the conflict when Ecuador was not able to defend itself. Realists would also point out the fact that when things were working better for the Ecuadorian government, “on August 17, 1960, President Jose Maria Velasco Ibarra of Ecuador again revived the boundary issue. ‘The Rio the Janeiro Protocol is null. We do not want war. But we will never acknowledge the Treaty of the Rio de Janeiro’”[29] By declaring that the Treaty is null Ecuador refused to acknowledge the validity of international law because it was no longer in the national interest to do so.

          During the war of 1995, Ecuador again changed its view about the validity of international law created by the Rio Protocol. It is claim that this time Ecuador after gathering information about the rapid strength of the Peruvian army – once Peru had somewhat solved its domestic problems – chose to recognize the existence of the Treaty but claim that cannot be executed due to the problems aforementioned. Furthermore, Ecuador fearing another invasion and perhaps the lost of part of its territory not only recognize the Treaty but also called the guarantor countries to help solve the border dispute. The back and forth shift about the validity of international law for part of Ecuador indicates that it was incline to recognize the validity of the law during the time that it needed the most. Therefore, the realist claim that countries respect international law when is in their national interests seem to be correct at least in this case.

          Realists would also point out that just like Ecuador; Peru violated international law when it was convenient to do so. When in 1941 Ecuador lost two-thirds of the Oriente Peru gained territory in open disobedience of the Pan American Pacts of 1933 and 1938, which “condemned the acquisition of territory by military occupation or any other means of force by another state directly or indirectly, on any ground whatever.”[30]

          The 1995 war between Ecuador and Peru ended thanks to the intervention of the four guarantor countries – the United States, Chile, Brazil, and Argentina,- and also thanks to the rapid intervention of the Organization of American States (OAS). Liberals believe that international organizations can play a key role in settling disputes. Furthermore, they believe that international organizations help to improve the relationship among nations by creating international law, creating acceptable norms of behavior, and promoting certain values that facilitate the interaction between and among independent sovereign states. Therefore, for liberals international organizations “are the primary means for mitigating the danger of war, promoting the development of shared norms and enhancing order.”[31]

          According to liberals, “international institutions can make international cooperation easier to attain than in their absence.”[32] Therefore, in explaining the 1995 war liberals would argue that the role of the guarantor countries and the rapid intervention of the OAS was effective because this time there were fewer casualties, and there was no lost of territory in neither side. They will also point out that during this war the role that the OAS and the guarantor countries play was bigger than it was during the war of 1981. With regards to the role of the guarantor countries, liberals would correctly claim that in 1995 the guarantors played a bigger role and “were determined to assist Peru and Ecuador in achieving a definite resolution to their border problem.”[33] This increasing role of IOs in helping to end conflicts is seen with optimism by liberals, because it confirms its utility.

          Besides the OAS, liberals can also argue that other international organizations like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank somehow help to settle the dispute in 1995 because these organizations helped to facilitate the negotiations by offering to the parties “some sorts of financial incentives, such as debt reduction or financial aid”[34]

          Despite the willingness of international organization to cooperate in settling disputes, liberals do recognize that “there are still significant barrier to achieve collective action.”[35] Nevertheless, they will argue that Peru and Ecuador “have attempted to settle their differences through negotiations, treaties, and arbitration[36] which were made possible thanks to the significant role that IOs played, especially the role played by the OAS.

          For realists, the role that IOs can play is mixed. Realists see IOs as agencies that take away the sovereign power of the states; therefore they can be detrimental to national security. But realists also believe that IOs can be used by the state as powerful tools; to gain power, to advance the national interest, to defend itself from aggressors, and to gain favorable treatment through collective action. Therefore, just like when dealing with international law, according to realists states will chose to obey the mandates of IOs when it is in their self-interest to do so.

          In relation to the 1995 war, realist would recognize that the OAS and the guarantor countries did succeeded in restoring peace but they will criticize the same organizations on the grounds that they were “unsuccessful in helping the parties to resolve the dispute itself.”[37] Because the results of IOs are not always successful in dealing with the issues at hand, realists are always skeptical of the real value of these organizations in helping to solve a problem. 

          The liberal claim that individuals are the most important actors in international relations seems not to be true at least when dealing with a war crisis. Both governments from Ecuador architect Sixto Duran Ballen and from Peru Alberto Fujimori arguably acted not in their self-interest but as realists would claim in their national interest. That these two leaders acted on behalf of their national interest can be confirmed by the role that the clergy, scholars, professionals, military personal, and experts played during the 1995 conflict, and then in the peace negotiations that took place in Itamaraty Brazil where the parties signed the Peace Accord of Itamaraty along with the guarantors in February 17, 1995.

Conclusion

         From the point of view of realists the conflict between Ecuador and Peru can be explained by the nature of the structural system. Anarchy or the lack of a central authority led to conflict in 1941, when Ecuador lost two-thirds of the disputed territory, then the Paquisha War in 1981, and finally the Cordillera del Condor War in 1995. Evidenced indicates that consistent with the realist claim the parties respected international law when it was in their interest to do so. Peru violated international law by annexing new territory despite the prohibition to do so for part of the Pan American Pact. Ecuador claimed that the Rio Protocol was null when it felt that it can have an advantage over Peru, but then when things were study carefully, and when Ecuador realized that Peru might have the capacity for a full invasion it recognized the validity of the Treaty and sought help from the OAS. Consistent with the realist claim that international institutions do not changed state behavior, both countries acted not according to the prescribed mandates of IOs but according to their power, and their self motivation. Furthermore, the evidence shows that states sought the help of international organization when they felt that it can be convenient, or when they were unable to deal with the problem by themselves. This behavior confirms that realist claim that states use IOs as tools to advance their own agendas.

          According to liberals war between Ecuador and Peru did occur but not as the result of anarchy, but as the result of misunderstandings, miscommunications, and the lack of transparency in the Cedulas emitted by the King of Spain which were supposed to divided the territory and avoid conflicts. Liberals can also explain the conflicts between these two countries by referring the sad true that both states at certain times chose not to respect international law and the mandates of IOs. Compliance with international law and IOs according to liberals is not because Ecuador and Peru felt that they can take advantage or use these organizations as tools to advance their own agendas but because both countries know that they will have a continuous interaction and that they will be better off by complying that by cheating.

Bibliography

Folker-Sterling Jennifer. Making Sense of International Relations Theory. Colorado USA: Lynne Rienner Publishers,

Forde, Steven. “Varieties of Realism: Thucydides and Machiavelli.” The Journal of Politics, Vol. 54, No. 2, May, 1992: Cambridge University Press.

Hollis, Martin and Smith, Steve. Explaining and Understanding International Relations. New York: Oxford University Press.

Maier, Georg. “The Boundary Dispute Between Ecuador and Peru.” The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 63, No. 1 January, 1969. Published by: American Society of International Law.

Mearsheimer, J. John. “The Tragedy of Great Powers.” Published by: University of Chicago. (class handout)

Mingst, A. Karen and Karns, P. Margaret. International Organizations: The Politics and Process of Global Governance. Colorado USA: Lynne Reinner Publishers, Inc.

Mingst, A. Karen and Karns, P. Margaret. International Organizations: The Politics and Process of Global Governance. Colorado USA: Lynne Reinner Publishers, Inc.

Scott Palmer, David. “Peru-Ecuador Border Conflict: Missed Opportunities, Misplaced Nationalism, and Multilateral Peacekeeping.” Journal of International Studies and World Affairs, Vol. 39, No. 3 Autumn, 1997. Published by: School of International Studies, University of Miami.

Shimko, L. Keith. “Realism, Neorealism, and American Liberalism.” The Review of Politics, Vol. 54, No. 2 Spring 1992: Cambridge University Press.


[1] Maier, Georg. “The Boundary Dispute Between Ecuador and Peru.” The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 63, No. 1 January, 1969. Published by: American Society of International Law. P 28

[2] Ibid. p 30

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. p 33

[7] Ibid. p 35

[8] Hollis, Martin and Smith, Steve. Explaining and Understanding International Relations. New York: Oxford University Press. P 29

[9] Maier. p 43

[10] Mingst, A. Karen and Karns, P. Margaret. International Organizations: The Politics and Process of Global Governance. Colorado USA: Lynne Reinner Publishers, Inc p 39

[11] Maier. p43

[12] Scott Palmer, David. “Peru-Ecuador Border Conflict: Missed Opportunities, Misplaced Nationalism, and Multilateral Peacekeeping.” Journal of International Studies and World Affairs, Vol. 39, No. 3 Autumn, 1997. Published by: School of International Studies, University of Miami.  p 112

[13] Forde, Steven. “Varieties of Realism: Thucydides and Machiavelli.” The Journal of Politics, Vol. 54, No. 2, May, 1992: Cambridge University Press. p 387

[14]Folker-Sterling Jennifer. Making Sense of International Relations Theory. Colorado USA: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc. p30

[15] Maier. p 44

[16] Folker-Sterling. p 15

[17] Shimko, L. Keith. “Realism, Neorealism, and American Liberalism.” The Review of Politics, Vol. 54, No. 2 Spring 1992: Cambridge University Press. p 293

[18] Maier. p 30

[19] Mearsheimer, J. John. “The Tragedy of Great Powers.” Published by: University of Chicago. (class handout) p 32

[20] Scott Palmer. p 115

[21] Ibid. p 121

[22] Ibid. p 119

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid. 113

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid. p 111

[27] Ibid. p 124

[28] Ibid. p 112

[29] Maier. p 44

[30] Ibid.

[31] Mingst, A. Karen and Karns, P. Margaret. International Organizations: The Politics and Process of Global Governance. Colorado USA: Lynne Reinner Publishers, Inc. p 38

[32] Folker-Sterling. 62

[33] Scott Palmer. p 110

[34] Ibid. p 128

[35] Folker-sterling. 57

[36] Maier. p 28

[37] Scott Palmer. p 115

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