Letters — 22 March 2017
US attorney writes from Washington

Monday, March 20, 2017

Dear Editor,

The Honourable Foreign Minister was quoted in the media as saying this past week that Belize lacked “internationally recognized borders,” and that the Belizean people therefore are like “squatters”. If Mr. Elrington was quoted correctly, then I certainly have to understand him to have been speaking metaphorically.

The fact that Guatemala refuses to recognize Belize’s established borders does not render them any the less valid at law. The international community, speaking through the United Nations, recognized both the Sarstoon, and also the parallel of longitude passing north to south through Garbutt’s Falls, as Belize’s borders with Guatemala. The U.N. General Assembly passed successive annual resolutions in the years prior to independence calling for Belizean independence within just these borders.

As importantly, Belize acquired title under international law to all of the territory within its present internationally recognized borders no later than 1850. Well before the date at which sovereignty over Belize transferred from the Belizean people to the British Crown in 1862, it was Belize and Belize alone which manifested sovereign authority as far west as Garbutt’s Falls, and southward all the way to the Sarstoon. The 1859 Treaty by its own terms recognized existing boundaries. Guatemala ceded no territory to Belize, for the simple reason that none of the lands in question ever were Guatemalan territory, either factually as shown through acts on the ground, or as a matter of international law.

As the Treaty was not one of cession, no substance can be attached to Guatemala’s argument that a British obligation to build a road or a railroad from the Caribbean to Guatemala City allowed Guatemala to renounce that treaty. There are several reasons for this, both factual and legal:

Guatemala actually got what it bargained for. Modern historical research shows that Guatemala’s primary interest when it sat down to negotiate the 1859 Treaty was to get British warships to suppress “Filibusterers” along the Caribbean coast. Guatemala in fact got just that.

Under principles of customary international law, even if Guatemala had not gotten what it actually had bargained for, Guatemala has no right at law to renounce a boundary treaty due to a later failure of consideration; that is, due to a later failure of Britain to build a road or a railroad to its capital. The International Court of Justice recognized and applied this legal principle in 1994, in its ruling in Territorial Dispute (Libyan Arab Jamahiriya/Chad).

Even if that were not so, any objective reading of Belizean-Guatemalan diplomatic history shows the failure of the transportation link to materialize was as much the fault of Guatemala as of Britain.

The paramount right of a nation at international law, the right of self-determination, precludes Guatemala from lawfully asserting sovereignty over any portion of Belize.

Over the nine colonial decades, from 1859 through to self-government in 1964, Belize (née British Honduras) consolidated its sovereignty over the entirety of its territory, as required under rules of international law. Throughout this entire period Guatemala exercised not a jot or tittle of actual authority within the lands it now claims. Had Guatemala once had any claims to Belizean territory cognizable at international law, it thus lost its legal right to assert such claims.

Belize’s rights at public international law to the entirety of its land territory may be disputed by its western neighbour. Countries, like people, are best off when their neighbours do not covet any of their possessions. However (to continue this analogy) the fact that one’s neighbour asserts a baseless challenge to one’s possessions does not make one’s ownership of each and every of these possessions any the less valid in law.

If I understand the Honourable Foreign Minister correctly, it certainly is best to put Guatemala’s claims to an end – however baseless they may be in international law. If an ICJ adjudication will serve this purpose, then that alone may be good reason to seek, in the proper manner, to have the International Court of Justice pronounce upon the issue. The Foreign Minister also rightly points out that the sea frontier off Belize’s coast needs to be delimited. But the suggestion that without such an ICJ decision the people of Belize are like squatters and are without good title under international law to their own nation must be understood as an attempt to speak metaphorically.

David Fine
Attorney at Law
Olympia, Washington

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