Features — 24 March 2016 — by Pambana Bassett
Belize and Guatemala Foreign Ministers reassure that ICJ is the answer, and ask for millions in OAS funds

BELIZE CITY, Mon. Mar. 21, 2016–On Tuesday, March 15, at the Organization of American States (OAS) office building located in Washington, D.C., a meeting was convened for the central purpose of appealing for funds to keep open the OAS office in the adjacency zone along the Belize-Guatemala terrestrial border. The annual cost to keep the office open is at least 2.5million US dollars. At the head table, from left to right, sat HE Patrick Andrews, Belize’s permanent representative* to the OAS; HE Minister of Foreign Affairs Wilfred “Sedi” Elrington; the Chief of the OAS Peace Fund Magdalena Talamás; HE Minister of Foreign Affairs for Guatemala, Carlos Raul Morales Moscoso*, and HE Ambassador of Guatemala to Belize, Manuel Roldan Barillas. The audience at the meeting, as described by OAS staff, included 22 “Friends” (those countries that give money and political capital to the OAS Peace Fund) and of these 14 were member states; the “Group of Friends” were seated at the central table and included vocal representation from Mexico, Spain, the European Union and others.

The major pronouncement during the opening of the meeting was that in August of this year the current funds available for the OAS office in the adjacency zone along the Belize-Guatemala border, will run out. Belize Minister of Foreign Affairs Wilfred Elrington explained that the office is “desperately in need of funds” and his Guatemalan counterpart, Minister Raul Morales appealed: “Necesitamos apoyo para que la oficina pueda seguir” (“We need support so that the office can continue”). In the presentations that followed, both Foreign Ministers from Belize and Guatemala assured the “Group of Friends” that the two nations have been seeking and continue to seek peace, that a case at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is the only viable option moving forward, and that a referendum on the ICJ is forthcoming in both nations. The content of the meeting sought to assure the “Group of Friends” that funds are being well-spent, and that the two countries maintain amicable relations, although they disagree on the border.

On behalf of the Secretariat for Political Affairs, Magdalena Talamás, opened the meeting explaining the role of the OAS “in mediating the Belize-Guatemala dispute,” describing the OAS’s project as the only “civil peace-keeping mission” in territories of dispute, and the only OAS project of its kind that “responds to a direct [organizational] mandate for the peaceful settlement of disputes”. Mission Chief Talamás in August of 2015 accompanied a trip organized by the Belize Territorial Volunteers to the Sarstoon River as an observer.

During the Tuesday meeting she described the OAS project as “highly successful” and went on to name key accomplishments for which the OAS is proud. These were: three agreements on Confidence-Building Measures, a Special Agreement for the ICJ confirmed through referenda, and 13 bi-lateral agreements. She told the audience – before giving the floor to Guatemala and then Belize to appeal for funds – that under this OAS effort there has been “not one serious confrontation” between the Belize and Guatemala armed forces or civilians, which she described as a concrete improvement from the reality before the OAS began its mission in Belize and Guatemala in 2000 at the invitation of Belize and Guatemala.

Talamás went on to lament that the OAS efforts have been “victims of [their] own success” because of the absence of armed conflict and the absence of international press on Belize-Guatemala, the OAS has met what she described as “funding challenges”. And so, the case had to be made to the “Group of Friends” and member states that the cause is worth funding in upwards of millions of dollars. Talamás namely thanked the European Union as a “staunch” supporter, Canada, Spain and others for their contributions. She told them that this is a “critical stage in the process” and reassured that never before have the two countries been “closer to a peaceful solution”.

In her appeal for support, she warned that the lack of the OAS would mean a lack of a “neutral” entity to “verify and investigate” and to pinpoint “exact locations”. A short film entitled “The Role of the OAS in Mediating the Belize-Guatemala Territorial Dispute” was then shown (it can be found on the OAS website*). In it the same main accomplishments were shared and additional attention was given to the Roadmap (signed in*) and projects financed and technically organized by the OAS in military and intelligence exchanges between the two countries, joint training of police, fire departments, customs and other agencies of both countries.

Chief Talamás then gave the floor to the Foreign Minister of Guatemala and, afterwards, to the Foreign Minister of Belize. Both parties reiterated the success of the OAS work in the area, particularly in economic and educational initiatives, and offered their reasons for the “seemingly slow” movement towards the International Court of Justice, and reassured that going to the ICJ is the singular path identified by both governments in order to achieve a peaceful and harmonious solution. During these presentations neither appeared to read from a prepared speech and both ultimately appealed to those present for funding to keep the office open in the Adjacency Zone, affirming that there is no doubt by the State on the effectiveness of the OAS in the matter.

Neither ministerial office made specific mention of the “incident” for which the Belize Government Press Office issued a press release in protest to the “hostile and threatening”* behaviour of the Guatemalan Armed Forces (GAF) towards the Belize Defence Force (BDF). The announcements made by Prime Minister Barrow before Tuesday that were reaffirmed by Minister Elrington in an exclusive interview with Kremandala on Tuesday in Washington, D.C., and in a press briefing held at the Radisson Fort George Hotel on Thursday, claimed that the topic of the Saturday “incident” was discussed in the morning bilateral closed meetings despite the desire of the Guatemalan delegation to avoid any such mention.

Throughout the meeting with the OAS and “Group of Friends,” no mention was made by the delegates of the actions by the GAF in the Sarstoon on Saturday; the recent events were briefly touched upon by attendees and both Foreign Minister respectively withheld a full comment, Minister Elrington saying that he would be “economical with [his words] before debriefing [the] Prime Minister”. The Foreign Ministers of both nations mostly discussed the positive relationship between the two countries, but also made reference to a lack of peace in the Adjacency Zone and along the border. They largely attributed the obstacles to peace as being the fault of non-state actors: illegal subsistence farming and harvesting, migration due to climate change, the transnational activities of drug trafficking and illegal planting and bad press.

The Foreign Minister of Guatemala explained how the OAS had played a role in the decrease in deaths along the border, explaining that only a few years ago eight peasant farmers were killed while harvesting xate leaves, but since no similar failure at peace has occurred. The role of armed or other governmental forces in the disruption of peace in the area, or the behaviour of armed Guatemalan forces towards unarmed civilians, was not discussed in official presentations.

When recent events at the Sarstoon were referred to after the country presentations, the Guatemala Foreign Minister responded that “there are two versions to a story; Guatemala has its version and Belize has its version” and reassured that there is a willingness to avoid any type of incident. While outlining the successes of the OAS mission, there was no mention of the detention of civilians or the prevention of access to the Sarstoon by Guatemalan armed forces. The Belize Delegation led by HE Elrington said that there is a “full commitment to explore ways to avoid conflicts that can only derail the process.” Both intimated that the press (“mala prensa”) and only certain segments of the population were the cause for the hurdles to attaining peace and harmony.

The specific and recent issues along the Sarstoon River – widely discussed in Belize media following a governmental press release describing GAF behaviour as “hostile and threatening”* – was broached by the representation from Mexico during time for questions and comments. HE Ambassador Emilio Rabasa Gamboa, OAS Permanent Representative for Mexico (a member state), said: “Evitemos, queridos amigos, estas chispas” or “Let us avoid, dear friends, these sparks”. Pointing to Saturday and other “incidents” in the Sarstoon as “sparks” that in other countries and contexts have caused large and damaging conflicts, HE Gamboa, reading in part from a prepared speech, explained that Mexico has and is considering providing resources to the OAS, but stressed that Mexico wants to see the cooperation continue with the full adherence to the 2014 Road Map and Plan of Action and that “any incident that could put this at risk should be avoided, specifically in the Sarstoon”.

When making a proposal to pledge funds to the OAS funds, HE Ambassador Gamboa stressed that Belize and Guatemala “show the world [an example of] how differendums can smooth conflicts” especially in a world full of “organized crime, large migration and other issues”. And, he reiterated that he was making “a respectful call to avoid incidents in the Sarstoon River,” appealing to both Parties to “try to stop any expedition” and that special precautions be taken in the “mouth of the Sarstoon”.

The representative from Spain, which maintains a permanent observer status with the OAS, also spoke, explaining that they were “happy to see the model of cooperation” and setting aside of “differences” by the two countries and their respective Foreign Ministers. The representative explained that Spain is particularly interested in a peaceful process because of its close relations with Guatemala, explaining that Spain is not so close with Belize, but that the relationship is a good one. The Spain representative observer explained that they had funded the project before and asked for more information on the “estimated deadlines for the ratification of the Amendments” that had been shared by HE Foreign Minister Elrington and the necessary steps in Guatemala in order to proceed towards the proposed submission to the ICJ. The Spain representative asked for these, “although you cannot predict the future,” making no specific demand perhaps considering that the FM Carlos Morales has, during his presentation, advised that “donors do not give a time frame for the referendum” because both countries are “mature” enough to set an appropriate date and to dictate a time frame “nos pueda complicar la vida” (“it could complicate things for us”).

The Foreign Minister Elrington had during his presentation explained that there exists an “initiative to amend the Referendum Act so that a simple majority will be taken.” He shared that he is “anticipating that it will occur in the next 3-4 months”. This was presented as the next step to carrying out a referendum in Belize. It also represents a change in governmental stance as indicated in 2013 by then CEO Minister of Foreign Affairs Alexis Rosado (and current Ambassador of Belize to Guatemala), who, Amandala reported, “said that Guatemala did ask Belize if there is any possibility of removing the 60% requirement from the act, but Belize indicated that it would not, and furthermore, explained that the changes to the referendum act were contemplated well before negotiations for the ICJ special agreement. Rosado said that this is really a non-issue, since voter turnout in Belize is customarily in the region of 70%.”

Guatemala’s response avoided mention of a time frame, but discussed the previous setbacks to holding a referendum. Foreign Minister Morales explained the Belize-Guatemala referendum was previously next-to-impossible, because the agreement demanded that Guatemala and Belize hold referenda on the same day. He explained that simultaneous voting created difficulties because voting days in Guatemala are held on Sunday and in Belize are during week days. Morales explained that last year the Special Agreement outlined that the countries could hold the referenda on different days. Guatemala had planned to do so at the same time as the presidential elections at the end of last year. He explained that this was not preferable after the resignation of then president Otto Perez Molina. (Molina was forced to resign after it was revealed by an independent body that he and the then Vice President Roxana Baldetti were involved in a major corruption scandal that effectively stole millions from the country’s Treasury.) Morales explained that the country was “chaotic” with many people in the streets, although, “fortunately no vandalism took place”.

Interestingly, at the time the voter turnout was about 70%, a record high for Guatemala; even though many grassroots organizers say that the election and run-off were so heavily-financed that the legitimacy of them is in question, the people of Guatemala came out to vote in larger numbers than is typical. Later, in an exclusive interview with Kremandala, the Foreign Minister reiterated that the conditions to hold the referendum were not favourable. He explained that there were matters that must go before the Congress in Guatemala before the referendum and that their office is “convinced that the referendum will support the ICJ.”

The current President of Guatemala, a former comedian criticized for wearing blackface and receiving support from the military elite, of which some are finally facing trails for crimes committed during the 1980’s genocide, is often quoted as saying that the most deplorable event in Guatemala’s history is “Something is happening right now, we are about to lose Belize. We have not lost it yet. We still have the possibility of going to the International Court of Justice where we can fight that territory or part of that territory.” Both Foreign Ministers were confident speaking authoritatively that on the governmental level in both countries, the ICJ is “the place to go”.

When asked by the European Union representative Helen Busclowaski about the morning bilateral talks, FM Elrington said that there were “positive results and outcomes as always”; he qualified that the morning closed session’s outcome was “not 100%, but better than before landing,” what he described as a “small mercy”. He went on to say that as always after meeting, the focus forward is “the reduction of tension”. The Foreign Minister of Guatemala echoed the sentiment saying that “pelearse es bien facil, pero siempre buscamos el lado positivo” (“to fight is very easy, but we always look on the positive side”) and after meetings end “siempre dandole la mano” (“shaking hands”).

And so ended the session at the OAS with those who had proposed continuing funding, Mexico, the European Union and Spain, and others, shaking hands in agreement on the path towards the proposed submission to the International Court of Justice.

Upon arriving in Belize, the Foreign Minister Wilfred “Sedi” Elrington and the Belize delegation, which included representative of the PUP, Dr. Assad Shoman, former Foreign Minister and current Ambassador, Alexis Rosado, debriefed the Prime Minister Dean Barrow, then the Leader of the Opposition John Briceño on the three meetings held in Washington DC. After doing so they met with the press to detail the OAS close bilateral talk, the private US State Department meeting and the OAS “Group of Friends” presentation. Both Minister Elrington and the PUP representative maintain that the OAS is the most capable office to do the mediation work and that the ICJ is the best peaceful option for Belize.

When questioned about the BDF “threat assessment” leaked documents that allegedly detail consistent hostility from the GAF, the delegation maintained its ignorance of such a document and reiterated that the true obstacles for peace are not the military, the state, or the people, but the media and select “sectors” or groups that engage in disruptive activity. The extension of agreements to Confidence Building Measures, which have been facilitated by the OAS along the western border, was stressed as an obvious solution to the “incidents” that take place at the Sarstoon River.

When asked about the 3-4 month estimate given to amend the Referendum Act to a simple majority, Minister Elrington explained that this is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ outlook, intimating that it may not be a unanimous governmental position. During the press briefing they maintained that 2.5 million US dollars were being sought to keep the OAS office open from those outside of the OAS “Group of Friends”, as well. Elrington told the press that a Taiwanese representative had arrived and responded favourably to assisting monetarily in the multi-million dollar OAS effort.

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