BELMOPAN, Tues. May 3, 2016–The killing of a Guatemalan teenager who was in the company of others who fired upon a joint Belize Defence Force (BDF) and Friends for Conservation and Development (FCD) patrol in the Chiquibul National Park has been used by the Guatemalan authorities to increase the tension between the two countries, even as the Guatemalan military continues to violate Belize’s territorial integrity at the Sarstoon River, on the southern border.
Prime Minister Dean Barrow has embarked on a diplomatic quest in hopes of securing support for Belize’s territorial integrity, he reported to the nation today, Tuesday.
PM Barrow made the remarks at a press conference at the NEMO Building in Belmopan when he briefed the nation about the progress of ongoing bi-lateral talks being held in Washington DC, between Belize Foreign Minister Wilfred “Sedi” Elrington and Guatemalan Foreign Minister Carlos Raul Morales.
The talks, which have been brokered by the Organization of American States (OAS), are being held without the participation of the Opposition People’s United Party (PUP).
Barrow also used the occasion to brief the country on a Statutory Instrument (SI) the government passed on Friday, restricting the movement of Belizeans in the Sarstoon River for a period of one month, so as to allow, he said, for the negotiations with Guatemala to produce a protocol for the two countries’ military to navigate the Sarstoon River.
The SI was aimed at preventing the Belize Territorial Volunteers (BTV) from going on a trip it had planned to embark on last Saturday to the Sarstoon, where it had hoped to celebrate the signing of the 1859 Anglo-Guatemalan Treaty which demarcated the borders between the two counties.
Reading from a prepared statement, Barrow said that last Monday, he attempted a detailed review of the crisis situation that has arisen following the incident at Cebada in which the Guatemalan teen lost his life.
“All the world now knows of the unjustified, disproportionate and incendiary response of Guatemalan officialdom to the unfortunate death of their citizen,” Barrow stated.
Barrow said that he has set out a diplomatic response outlining what Belize had done and would do to avert military hostilities.
“In the circumstances, I also made a four-square appeal to the Belize Territorial Volunteers to call off their planned trip to the Sarstoon, which had become the hottest of spots and a particular powder keg in the sharply deteriorated climate that had overtaken Belize/Guatemala relations,” Barrow said.
He insisted that it is the Government’s responsibility to do everything to safeguard Belizean lives and went on to specifically outline Government’s actions, saying, “…we procured passage of a Regulation under the Public Safety Act. This prohibited civilians’ entry, without official permission, into Belize’s portion of the Sarstoon. And when the BTV nevertheless attempted to set out for the Sarstoon on Saturday, we stopped them.”
“Government is in no doubt that it was the right thing to do. We made clear, and repeat today, that our actions were one-off. The regulation will remain in force for only one month, during which time we redouble our efforts to secure a guarantee regarding the Sarstoon. If those efforts do not succeed, then all bets are off. We will not again stop the BTV from going to that portion of the Sarstoon that belongs to Belize. And our ownership, as recognized and demarcated by the 1859 Treaty, can never be in doubt,” Barrow went on to note.
“In the normal course, therefore, all Belizeans have a perfect right to traverse our half of the Sarstoon. And, in fact, the very prohibition that we passed in these one-time, exceptional circumstances is predicated on Belize’s sovereignty and jurisdiction over our share of the Sarstoon,” Barrow explained.
Turning to the most recent rounds of Belize’s diplomatic efforts, Barrow pointed out that the African, Caribbean and Pacific states (ACP) were in support of Belize’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Barrow also noted that the Commonwealth Secretary General, Baroness Scotland, who recently visited Belize, had reiterated her organization’s position that Guatemala must respect the 1859 borders.
“Baroness Scotland will now convene a meeting of the Commonwealth Standing Committee on Belize so they might set up their monitoring of the Belize/Guatemala situation,” he said.
“And on Friday in Freeport, Bahamas, our Foreign Minister got support for us from CARICOM and the UK,” Barrow added.
“Belizeans should note that these results so far make clear that our position, our cause, is understood and accepted by the international community. In other words, they know that our security personnel came under attack yet again, this time under cover of darkness, from Guatemalan civilians squarely in our territory; they know that these civilians were engaged in their continuing illegal activity which, in the Chiquibul alone, has cost this country tens of millions of dollars in plundered resources and environmental degradation; they know that the BDF, small in number, strapped for resources and facing almost impossible odds, continues to wage a heroic struggle to protect and preserve Belizean patrimony,” said Barrow.
“Still, our work proceeds and there will be no let-up. Thus it is that our Foreign Minister has been dispatched directly from the Bahamas to Washington, where we have succeeded, with the help of the Americans, in arranging a number of meetings. These are with the OAS, the State Department, and a Guatemalan delegation led by their Foreign Minister. The talks are taking place today, are particularly about the Sarstoon, and Foreign Minister Elrington is accompanied by Ambassador Alexis Rosado, Ambassador Pat Andrews, and National Security CEO Colonel George Lovell.
“Clearly, then, we continue to pursue all means to dispel any threat from Guatemala and to secure an international diplomatic shield for Belize’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Barrow told the country.
During the question and answer session which followed the PM’s prepared statement, Barrow was asked about the absence of representatives of the Opposition in the bilateral talks with Guatemala.
Barrow said no Opposition representative was involved. “And that is for the very simple reason that we did not get to the meetings until Monday. That is when Ambassador Andrews called me at 5 o’ clock in the morning to say that he just had a communications with the State Department and giving me the times for the meetings. Now we had been trying before Monday, pretty much all weekend,” he said.
Barrow said that due to the fluid situation in the period leading up to the meetings, they did not get a chance to involve the Opposition.
Barrow described as unfortunate some remarks coming from the Guatemalan Foreign Minister regarding the shooting of the Guatemalan minor in the Chiquibul.
“There is no doubt in my mind that there has been de-escalation on the part of the Guatemalans. So while clearly the issue of the Sarstoon, which is for us the immediate, urgent issue, cannot be isolated from the larger context of Belize/Guatemala relations, the compelling discussion will have to take place about the Sarstoon,” he said.
Barrow was informed about the PUP’s decision to go to the Sarstoon within the one-month period when the government’s ban is in effect, and he was asked if the state would enforce the ban against them.
“The prohibition is meant to deter anybody from going to the Sarstoon for purposes other than regular, routine day to day activities. In other words, you don’t want to stop anybody from Barranco, any other regular civilians. But if the Opposition’s intention is to try to make a political point, then in the normal course the prohibition would apply to them,” Barrow replied.
Barrow was asked if the government’s handling of the Sarstoon situation was weak-kneed, but he replied that people are perfectly entitled to their opinion, adding, “and I would not quarrel with them.”
“The government must at all times bear in mind the larger picture and the country’s overriding national interest. I say again, if those people were allowed to go, we were fearful that there was a strong possibility that either they, or a member of the security forces, may well have been injured or may well have been killed. In those circumstances, because we were convinced that all reasonable, right-minded, well-thinking people would see the reason for the course of action we undertook, we are convinced that it was absolutely the right thing to do,” he remarked.
Barrow was asked if there will be any push by the BDF and the Coast Guard to halt the movement of Guatemalan illegal activity in the area of the Sarstoon.
“Government’s preoccupation is with getting an agreement, supported by the international community, that will provide for clear protocols to govern traffic on the Sarstoon on our side and on the Guatemalan side. In the meantime, there is a distinction to be made between the almost happenstance of Guatemalan civilians using the Sarstoon for earning a livelihood and so on, and the mission of the Belize Territorial Volunteers, which was political, not in the partisan sense, but political in terms of their determination to make a point. In the circumstances we treat the two things differently and acted as we did on Saturday,” Barrow said.
Barrow was asked about remarks made by the Guatemalan Foreign Minister that he has been assured by the Belize Foreign Minister that no one would be allowed to go onto Sarstoon Island.
“The Guatemalan Foreign Minister is not telling the truth,” Barrow replied.