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Belize will never agree to ex aequo et bono: Compton

The Editor Amandala
May 8th, 2013

Dear Sir,

Today, May 8th, marks the 45th anniversary of the day when Dean Lindo, Nadia Cattouse and I addressed Members of Parliament on the Belize–Guatemala dispute at a House of Commons meeting in London. Less than two weeks earlier, both Dean and I were in Washington D.C., on April 26th 1968, when Ambassador Bethuel Webster handed over his Proposals to the British and Belize Governments. Professor Louis M. Bloomfield was also present as an observer on behalf of the Belize Government.

“In the hallowed and historic palace of Westminster, home of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, the plight of British Honduras was raised tonight for all to hear, when more than a hundred Members of Parliament, peers of the realm, diplomats from the independent Caribbean Commonwealth countries, journalists, British Hondurans and friends of the country sat silent and keenly interested for three hours as the whole question of the Webster Proposals and of the future British Honduras was examined in detail by experts.”

Dean Lindo, who was at that time Shadow Minister for Economic Affairs and Finance, was the first speaker (I was the last). He began by telling the audience that the Webster Proposals “were in fact already with the Government Printers. Nevertheless, despite the fact that the country’s economy is in ruins and money is desperately short for major projects of vital importance, the government – who could very well have made the Proposals public without us even leaving Belize City – expended a huge sum of money to pay for an eleven-member delegation to go to Washington. This showed bad faith and reckless extravagance.”

On this memorable day I would like to revisit a prediction I made which was published in January of 2007: What’s this about taking the dispute to the International Court of Justice? It is not going to happen!

For more than 60 years the British government had offered the government of Guatemala the opportunity to take this “British Honduras–Guatemala Dispute” to the Hague Court. On each occasion the Guatemalans refused, suggesting instead that the matter should be arbitrated by the “President of the United States” or the President of France. Twice in 1937 the British made the offer to go to the International Court of Justice, then again in 1946 and to step up matters gave the Guats 5 years to act. They did nothing but, in June of 1948 the Guatemalans repeated the nonsense of requesting the U.S.to mediate after amassing troops on the border threatening to invade (which they did again in 1972). In 1951 the offer was extended another 5 years.

The Guatemalans knew that in international law they had no legal claim to Belize. So when the British refused to go the way of arbitration or mediation (i.e. until 1966 under U.S. pressure), the Guatemalans said “OK” we will go to the International Court of Justice but, only if the case is decided ex aequo et bono, that is to say, “according to what’s right and good”. The British, of course, said “NO,” because there are treaties involved and treaties are all about laws. The ICJ is a court of law but they will arbitrate a case ex aequo et bono only if both sides request it and agree to the results. About ten years ago (1996) the arbitration act was amended to mandate that there can be no appeal of any decision the court makes on ex aequo et bono. In its 61-year history the ICJ has never arbitrated a territorial dispute ex aequo et bono.

Cutting through the legal jargon, the Guatemalans have no legal case for some simple factual reasons, if their claim is – Succession from Spain? The Spaniards abandoned the territory from 1832, so, if the British “squatted” for over 100 years without the Spaniards complaining, then the British “occupiers” owned it. British laws were in effect from 1765 via the Burnaby Code. Guatemala never had any rights by treaty, succession, or occupation, so they would never go to the ICJ. The people of Belize will never (like the British) agree to ex aequo et bono.

This territorial dispute has been studied by international lawyers on three continents, in several languages, but the most comprehensive work in the English language is by celebrated international lawyer Louis M. Bloomfield of Canada. Bloomfield was at a reception in London in the early 50’s when he was asked by the British Foreign Secretary, Mr. Anthony Eden, to research the dispute (Sir Anthony Eden later became Prime Minister in 1955). Bloomfield was given free access to many historical documents at the Foreign Office, a privilege many other researchers did not have.

Like all Belizeans, I often wondered what the outcome of the dispute would be, so when I had the opportunity at the right moment to speak with Bloomfield one-on-one, I asked his opinion. It was at the Delegates Lounge at the United Nations. His response was, “Compton, the Guatemalans don’t have a legal case and we have not discussed uti possidetis or possession by conquest as a result of the 1798 St. George’s Caye engagement with the Spaniards. The Guatemalans do have a compensatory claim as a result of Article 7 of the 1859 Treaty, and I would love to see the British pay some good money with interest.”

This seems to have been the method arrived at by British and Americans when in 1977 they agreed to offer Guatemala a US 100-million-dollar oil refinery to settle the dispute, to which we had no objection except that the deal included the cession of Belizean territory from the Moho to the Sarstoon including parts of the continental shelf.

Now that the matter has been placed on an indefinite hold, we can devote our energies to other pressing matters.

Compton Fairweather

To my dear friend

Compton Fairweather with the admiration
and esteem of the author

LM Bloomfield


The British Honduras – Guatemala


Queen’s Counsel,

Member of the Bar of the Province of Quebec,
Member of the Canadian Bar Association,
Member of the Bar of the Tribunal Mixte, Tangier, Morocco.
Charter Patron International Bar Association,
Member International Law Association, London, England,
Member of the Council, International Law Association,
Canadian Branch,
Delegate of the Canadian Bar Association to the
Fourth Conference of the Inter-American Bar Association,
Santiago, Chile, 1945.

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