BENQUE VIEJO DEL CARMEN, Fri. Apr. 15, 2016–The ages-old, expansionist Guatemalan claim Belize inherited with independence from Britain has been dominating the national scene for over a year due to several incidents in the Sarstoon River involving the Guatemalan Armed Forces’ violation of Belize’s territorial integrity, with its new claim to the entire Sarstoon River.
It is against that backdrop and the talk of settling the dispute at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that hundreds of teachers from all branches of the powerful Belize National Teachers Union (BNTU) gathered today in Benque Veijo Del Carmen to launch their “Stand Up for Belize” campaign, which will focus on the building of awareness of the Guatemalan claim.
During his opening remarks, the BNTU national president, Luke Palacio, said, “We don’t want to hear that the Sarstoon, half of it doesn’t belong to us anymore. What is geography? Do you still have 8,867 square miles of area? Are we still located at longitude so-and-so? We need to get these things back into our classrooms if our Belizean children will learn to love and appreciate this country.
“As we launch this campaign today, we ask the questions? What has happened to the song ‘We don’t want no Guatemala,’ which used to be the signature tune of the Opposition, now in government? What has happened to the famous ‘not one square centimeter’ when the People’s United Party was government and now they are Opposition? Those are the words that we need to have resonating throughout this country, so we can build the patriotism and the love of country that we are talking about.”
Palacio added, “The Teachers Union is launching its campaign for all of us to stand up for Belize. Belize is for Belizeans.”
Today’s launch of Stand Up For Belize featured two guest speakers who have been on the frontlines of the negotiations with Guatemala for a number of years: Foreign Affairs Minister Wilfred “Sedi” Elrington and former PUP Foreign Minister and senior diplomat, Dr. Assad Shoman, who has written extensively on the subject.
Dr. Shoman was the first of the two guest speakers to address the teachers. Among the remarks that Dr. Shoman made is that Belize should amend the Maritime Areas Act so that Belize can claim its rightful 12-mile sea limit.
Dr. Shoman explained that under the Maritime Areas Act that the government passed into law in 1990, Belize was only claiming three miles of sea, because the Maritime Areas Act was passed as a negotiation tool to aid in the search for a negotiated settlement.
Since there has been no negotiated settlement and Belize signed the Special Agreement in 2008 for the dispute to be litigated at the ICJ (which signified that the dispute cannot be settled by negotiation), Dr. Shoman explained, Belize should claim its rightful 12-mile sea limit.
On the question of the situation in the Sarstoon, Dr. Shoman said, “They say we are losing the Sarstoon. Some say we’ve lost it already. Not so. Sarstoon Island is ours. You can’t see the thing, but this is the back of a T-shirt which says ‘Sarstoon Island da fu we.’ So said Colonel Manuel Calle Madrazo, the Guatemalan Boundary Commissioner who signed the map of 13th May, 1861, saying the line on it, drawn in red, below the Sarstoon Island, was correct [that Sarstoon Island belongs to Belize].” Dr. Shoman said.
Dr. Shoman added, “That map is attached to the 1859 Treaty at the National Archives museum. And Guatemalan governments have respected that line since then. The British have published maps many times right through the 1970s with that line under the island and the Guatemalan government has never protested against that.
“Now, quite recently, they have begun to say that the whole river is theirs and that they will assert sovereignty over it, and now they have the gall to say protocols exist, that don’t exist – that their new version of reality is the status quo, like the Israelis owns Palestine. They are trying to establish facts on the ground, as they called it – facts on the ground by force, expecting that these so called facts will be internationally recognized after a time.”
Shoman further commented, “Those are not friendly acts, and if I were the Foreign Minister, I would say to Carlos Raul [Guatemala’s Foreign Minister], ‘When I was down, you just stood there grinning,’ and that’s a picture of Carlos Raul grinning away. Grinning and changing the facts, inventing history. I have called Guatemalan governments before ‘serial killers ….’, now I say they are chronic distorters of history. Obviously, we can’t let them get away with that.”
Minister Elrington said that a lot of what the government is doing is a follow-up on what Assad Shoman had done in past negotiations.
“Before Assad Shoman ceased to be head of the delegation and head of the negotiating team, he caused the confidence building measures to be agreed upon, and I will read to you what he put in train, and which I am constrained to follow. You will find that sometimes members of my government speak differently about issues. For example, in the [Danny] Conorquie issue, there were members in my government, head of the police and even ministers were saying, ‘I am certain that it is the Guatemalans that killed Conorquie’. My position was, if you bring me the evidence, I will say that,” Minister Elrington said.
Elrington added, “We can’t cry wolf and we cannot be perceived as troublemakers. We can’t be perceived by the international community as troublemakers. We have to get the Guatemalans to work with us.”
In the question-and-answer session which followed the presentation of Dr. Shoman and Minister Elrington, the teachers asked some critically important questions.
One teacher asked how much would it cost Belize to go to the ICJ.
Elrington replied, “The cost of them [the OAS] staying in Belize, really, the taxpayers of Belize can’t generate the wealth. It is very, very expensive to maintain public service, teaching services [Belize’s education campaign], it is millions and millions of dollars to go to the ICJ, and so, we will pay quite a few dollars.
“But because the international community is so concerned that this matter is settled, we are depending on the international community both to finance the education campaign that we are now doing, to finance the OAS office, as well as to finance going to the International Court of Justice, so that the cost will not come out of Belize’s taxpayers, because we don’t have the money to pay. It is very expensive but it is an exceedingly important cost because the value of ending this is priceless.”
Elrington went on to say, “So that is what he is talking about when he makes reference to having a team to go and in fact internationalize it, and we are getting our partners to be aware of what is going on and to get their sympathy to support us financially and otherwise. That is something that we continue to work on and it is something that we will continue to work on until the matter is tamed.
“But it is not local people who are going to have to find monies, as it is, now we are working to get the money from the OAS, we are not going to the taxpayers for $2.5 million U.S.”
Dr. Shoman also challenged the BNTU to put the Guatemalan claim into the school curriculum.
He said, “It would be a great outcome of this campaign if your union, I’m going to make a proposal to you now, you can pass the resolution at your next convention demanding that the Ministry of Education put the Guatemalan claim on the curriculum. Don’t just stand there and see your country’s sovereignty and integrity chipped away; do something about it.
“Let’s move on. I want to suggest to you to pass another resolution asking the House of Representatives to amend the Referendum Act, which now says that for any referendum, at least 60 percent of the people have to go and vote. Doesn’t matter if you have more than 50 percent agree, if 60 percent of the people who register to vote don’t vote, then the referendum is no good.
“That is against democracy, man. I thought democracy meant the majority. We are stuck with that law now and the Guatemalan government is using it against us, saying to the international community that referendums would not be fair because in one country the majority [needs to vote] and in the other country, you need 60 percent to go and vote, and the international community is beginning to support that position because that’s logic.”
“We are giving Guatemala a stick to beat us. If the Guatemalan government can succeed and it is trying to paint us as the stubborn party because we refuse to abide by the United Nations charter and take our dispute to the ICJ; if they succeed in that, our pork will roast,” said Dr. Shoman.
While Minister Elrington says that he prefers to work in peace and harmony with the Guatemalans, and has always been reluctant to be openly critical of the Guatemalans, that is not the case with Dr. Shoman, who stated in today’s session with the teachers that he doesn’t trust the Guatemalan military, elite and ruling class.