The International Court of Justice on Tuesday rejected Uruguay’s request to force Argentina to remove roadblocks on bridges linking the two countries, which Uruguay complains are causing serious economic harm.

The blockades have complicated a bitter and protracted dispute between the neighbouring countries over a $1.2bn pulp mill being built by Finland’s Botnia in Uruguay, which Argentines fear will damage the environment and tourism.

The UN court’s decision, which had widely been expected to favour Uruguay, comes as a relief to the Argentine government, which has consistently refused to use force to stop the protestors. They have maintained continuous blockades since the World Bank granted Botnia a $170m loan last November.

Uruguay says that roadblocks early last year cost its tourism and transport industries some $400m. It also argues that they are illegal, since they break the rules of the Mercosur free trade bloc – also including Brazil, Paraguay and Venezuela – which guarantees the free movement of people and goods. But the court, which ruled in favour of Argentina by a 14 to 1 majority, said in a statement that it was not convinced that the blockades “risk prejudicing irreparably the rights which Uruguay claims in the present case.”

Last year, it rejected – also by a 14 to 1 majority – a request by Argentina for the construction of the pulp mills to be suspended. Since then, one of the factories being built by Spain’s Ence decided to relocate.

However the court, based in The Hague, may take another two years to reach a decision on the original case filed last year by Argentina, after the failure to make progress through negotiation. Argentina complains that Uruguay violated a 1975 treaty governing the Uruguay River by unilaterally going ahead with the construction of the cellulose plants, which represent Uruguay’s largest ever foreign investment.

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