Features — 30 May 2018 — by Lawrence Vernon

Assad Shoman.  Guatemala’s Claim to Belize -The Definitive History-

Historically, Belizeans have been hearing phrases like “The Anglo-Guatemalan Dispute” and the “Belize-Guatemala Territorial Differendum”, all of which, describing a centuries-old dispute, can be summed up as “The Belize Question”, which has seen several publications on the subject, and I am especially intrigued by an American lawyer, William Bianchi, who asked the question in 1959 in his book Belize: The controversy between Guatemala and Great Britain over the territory of British Honduras in Central America:

“Who can guarantee that the march of history will not overtake the law of today and transform it into the relic of tomorrow; that it will not produce or create any new legal doctrine or doctrines to justify Guatemala in demanding and acquiring the disputed tract?”

One of the first attempts to answer this question was produced over 50 years later by Assad Shoman in his 2013 publication, “How you can end the Guatemalan claim.” And now today, this illustrious and prodigious author of over half a dozen books has set about to inform readers in his most recent treatise — Guatemala’s claim to Belize -The Definitive History, the embodiment of everything readers need to know about the Guatemalan claim and how best to end it.

Assad Shoman, who began writing about Belize even before he became a political activist, is highly qualified to write on the subject. Rising up in popular movements in Belize and then moving into the established system, he became an elected representative and senator, as well as a minister of government holding portfolios in health, national development and foreign affairs.

As an eminent historian Shoman is quite aware that the noble thoughts of nations to consolidate their places on the world stage have not always resulted in success. He is also aware that the attempts that Belize has made, and continues to make, in establishing amicable relations with Guatemala have caused frustration to its citizens, who for the most part have become complacent, disinterested, and generally are going on with their lives ignorant and uncaring about the Belize Question. To all but the activists, the politicians, and those who have traditionally followed attempts to settle the dispute, the International Court of Justice (I.C.J.) is as alien as the 1859 Treaty.

Since the early 1970s, home-grown Belizean leaders have played a crucial role in shaping and promoting Belize’s interests in the Belize Question. As a part of the government during that period, Shoman, who holds a law degree at Hull University and a PhD in history at the University of London, played a crucial role in how certain developments in international relations favorable to developing countries enabled Belize to advance its cause. He was deeply involved in the diplomatic struggle for Belize’s independence, and most importantly in the search for a definitive resolution to Guatemala’s claim.

In six very comprehensive and informative chapters, Shoman takes the reader on a journey through time, exemplified by a gift of narrative and description; and succeeds splendidly in enlightening readers to little-known, or never-before revealed, anecdotes of events and factors occurring in Belize, Guatemala and the wider international sphere which greatly influenced the direction the Belize Question has taken.

Shoman argues in the first chapter that the infamous Article Seven of the 1859 Anglo-Guatemalan Treaty, concerning a certain cart-road, should have been the end of the matter, but it turned out historically to have been only the beginning of an on-going strife.

Chapter Two covers the period between 1950 and 1972 which describes the Nationalist Movement, and reveals the attitude of the leaders of the People’s United Party to Guatemala. To better understand this attitude, Shoman gives us a closer look at what was happening in Guatemala at that critical point of the development of the independence movement in Belize. The U.S.A., for its part, greatly influenced by the impact of the Cuban Revolution, appointed Bethuel Webster as a mediator in 1965 to find a resolution of the dispute between Britain and Guatemala over Belize. The resulting Webster Proposals, which Shoman gives as proof that the British government could not be trusted to safeguard Belizean interests, because it had tried very hard to convince the Belizean leaders to accept what amounted to Guatemalan control of Belize, were out-rightly rejected by the Belize House of Representatives in 1968.

The period of 1972 to 1975 constitutes Chapter Three, in which Shoman deals with efforts to secure international support for Belize’s independence, incorporating putting pressure on Britain to provide a defense guarantee to restrain Guatemala from any military action against Belize. Shoman himself, along with Robert Leslie, headed a Belizean Independence Secretariat which launched a campaign in Mexico and Central America resulting in Belize being recognized “in every sense a nation with its own peoples, its own history, and its own territory.”

Chapter Four, covers the 1978 to 1981 period, which Shoman chronicles as some of the most difficult times the Belize government went through in the struggle for independence, fostered in no small measure by increased pressure from the U.S.A. and Britain to cede Belizean territory. Shoman opines that “the entity that must be given the biggest kudos for Belize gaining its independence with security and territorial integrity is the people of Belize,” who although subjected to lies and fabrications in the media made a choice in 1979 to endorse the move towards independence. A key point brought out by Shoman here is that the very significant and important support by Panama’s Omar Torrijos resulted in completely fracturing the “Latin American Solidarity” which had favored Guatemala.

The post-independence period up to the present day is treated in Chapter Five, in which Shoman relates the events including Guatemala’s recognition of the Belizean State, the passage of the Maritime Areas Act in 1991, and the facilitation process in 2000, in the course of which the Parties agreed to Confidence Building Measures (C.B.Ms), including a defining line called the Adjacency Line that separated Belize and Guatemala.

Following the refusal of Guatemala to abide by the Proposals, Shoman was appointed to head a major negotiating team, and created a Secretariat of Relations with Guatemala and a National Advisory Commission. There was another C.B.M. agreement in 2003, but negotiations were leading nowhere and in 2005 the Parties agreed to continue negotiations but provided for the Secretary General of the O.A.S. to recommend submission of the case to the I.C.J. if no agreement could be reached. By 2007, the Belize government accused Guatemala of “being intransigent and obstructionist” and O.A.S. Secretary General Insulza recommended submission to the I.C.J. and both countries agreed.

In 2008, Belize and Guatemala signed a Special Agreement to submit the claim to the I.C.J., and although in 2012 both parties agreed that simultaneous referenda would take place on 6 October 2013, that was postponed sine die.  Belize, for its part, launched a National Public Awareness Campaign in January 2013, and by the end of 2017 had made over 500 presentations to schools and other institutions. As we now know, Guatemala held a referendum in April 2018 where a massive majority agreed to submit the case to the I.C.J., and Belize’s own referendum is due to take place on 10 April 2019.

In the final chapter, Shoman gives the legal facts and principles that the I.C.J. will have to use to arrive at a decision. He explains legal concepts such as uti possidetis, acquisitive prescription and others; how the Law of Treaties apply; and discusses established principles and practices of international law to show that the Belize-Guatemala border has long assumed the necessary permanence to be fixed and immutable as a matter of law. The author is confident that if the issue of title were to come before the I.C.J. it would dispose of the question simply by reference to the treaties of 1859 and 1931. In this “the I.C.J. would not follow Guatemala into the complicated, controversial and now manifestly irrelevant and illusory historical web that it has chosen to weave.” At this point Shoman goes on to show other valid and legal reasons why Belize would succeed if it went to the I.C.J., paramount among which is evidence of numerous instances of specific Guatemalan acknowledgement of Britain’s title to the whole of Belize.

In concluding his voluminous treatise, Guatemala’s Claim to Belize -The Definitive History-, Assad Shoman leaves us with the conviction that if we go to the I.C.J. “we cannot lose what we already have, but that we will gain what we do not have: Guatemala’s recognition of our sovereignty, and a rightful delimitation of our maritime areas with Guatemala.” History has proven that a settlement of the Belize Question through negotiation has not been the way to go. In essence then, we are made aware that on the one hand Guatemala wants something, and Belize will not accept a settlement if we have to cede anything! Surely, though, in the meantime and for its own survival, Belize has to figure out how to end Guatemala’s claim to our territory and begin to live in true peace and harmony with our beautiful neighbor!

A copy of Assad Shoman’s definitive history book on Guatemala’s claim to Belize should be within easy reach of all those who need to quickly acquire a sound grasp of this age-old issue.

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