Uruguay and Argentina clashed Monday in The Hague before the International Court with bitter allegations indicating that the escalating controversy between neighboring countries over the building of pulp mills far from easing is turning more acrimonious. The only thing both sides agreed on was to request a second day of hearings.
Uruguay demanded an end to the "almost total blockade" which Argentine pickets are imposing by impeding access to bridges leading to Uruguay with the purpose of forcing a suspension of the construction of a pulp mill. Argentina rejected each of the accusations and even questioned the jurisdiction of the Court to rule on the matter. As happened last June when the hearing on the possible environment impact for the river Uruguay that acts as a natural border between both countries, and where one of the pulp mills in under construction, both delegations appealed to all resources in their positions before the Court headed by British magistrate Rosalyn Higgins. "Three international bridges built to strengthen bilateral links are being used to apply extreme pressure on Uruguay to end the construction of the Botnia pulp mill", complained Uruguay's ambassador in France and head of the team, Hector Gorss Espiell. "Argentine pickets act on the passivity of the Argentine authorities. There's no legitimate excuse which can justify the omission of the Argentine government in its duty to prevent the blockade" insisted the ambassador. Although President Nestor Kirchner's administration does not support the pickets, it has promised not to use force to liberate access to the bridges arguing residents in the area have a right to "freely express" themselves. Uruguay argued that pickets worsen the situation and described the action as "blackmail" contrary to the Court's July 13 ruling which provisionally endorsed the construction of the pulp mill belonging to the Finnish company Botnia. At the time Argentina requested a suspension of the building to give time for an accumulated environmental impact assessment. Last month the World Bank, which is partially financing the project, approved more than 500 million US dollars in loans for the Botnia-Orion pulp mill, after a study found the plant met its environmental standards. Although Gros Espiel said Uruguay was not in The Hague to "complain about economic losses", the Scottish solicitor Alan Boyle contracted by Uruguay pointed out that the blockades were "strangling the economy" of the country since 22% of its trade is with Argentina, plus hampering the tourism industry. Argentina counterattacked by stating that Uruguay is attempting "to invent a false link" between the road blocks and the heart of the matter which is whether Uruguay violated the 1975 agreement for the joint management of the river Uruguay resources. Furthermore the head of the Argentine legal team Susana Ruiz Cerrutti openly argued that the International Court did not have jurisdiction to address the issue and regretted the "insulting" claims from Uruguay referred to President Kirchner's alleged "non action" against pickets. "There is no possible relation between this issue and the heart of the matter which has been submitted to this Court (by Argentina)", insisted Ruiz Cerrutti referring to the 1975 River Uruguay Treaty, and the alleged violation by Uruguay, which Argentina originally used as an argument. The Argentine delegate also tried to invalidate Uruguay's demand for having last September 6 appealed for the same motives, to a Mercosur disputes tribunal, and which is not accepted by the International Court. Leaving aside the jurisdiction and demand's validity issues, Argentina brushed aside arguments that pickets had had an impact in the construction of the Botnia Orion pulp mills or for that matter a second pulp mill by Spain's Ence, which last week announced the re-location of its project, as demanded by Argentina. "Blockades had no impact on the construction of the pulp mills. Both projects seem to enjoy good health", said Ruiz Cerrutti recalling that Botnia is on schedule and "70% finished" and Ence has decided to build along the coast of the River Plate. Argentina also hammered with global figures showing a "significant growth" both in peoples' movements and bilateral trade between Argentina and Uruguay during the peak blockade periods. The International Court has no specific date to deliver a ruling but with Christmas and New Year in the next few days, the case could have to wait until next mid January.