Headline Letters — 26 January 2016
David Gibson discusses “… to Old Sarstoon”

Dear Editor,

We take note of the concerns expressed in your 23rd January 2016 weekend editorial entitled “… to Old Sarstoon…” on Guatemala’ s current and future posture with respect to its bi-lateral relations with Belize. We offer the following  for consideration:

The reappointment of Lic. Carlos Raul Morales as Guatemala’s Foreign Minister by newly inaugurated President Jimmy Morales is a signal for continuity in the conduct by Guatemala of its foreign policy towards Belize. This means the continuation of activity to normalize relations in conformity with recent agreements for cooperation reached between the countries within the framework of the Agreements on Confidence Building Measures under the aegis of the Organization of American States OAS. It can also be expected that the countries will endeavor to accomplish the necessary steps required to implement the 2008 Special Agreement to refer the territorial dispute to the International Court of Justice ICJ.

In the case of Belize, the conducting of a referendum is projected by Prime Minister Barrow to occur in 2017. After the politicization of the issue in the recent general elections, there is some doubt whether there can be a restoration of the bi-partisan approach to the issue which would achieve the necessary 60% voter turnout, much less a majority “Yes” vote. An amendment to the Referendum Act to provide for a simple majority vote is not likely to go down well with the Belizean public and could even result in a “No” vote, given the suspicion surrounding Guatemala’s earlier demand that the Government of Belize amend the Act  to “level the playing field” for both countries.

In Guatemala’s case, President Morales is required to obtain congressional ratification for the amended Special Agreement signed in May 2014 allowing the countries to proceed separately with the conducting of the stipulated national referendums.

In the November 2014 elections, President Morales’ party, the Frente Convergencia Nacional (FCN), gained 11 of the 123 seats in the unicameral Congress representing a testing of that party’s ability to mobilize and coalesce the necessary support for ratification of the amended Special Agreement. Its initial ratification received the full support of Congress in September 2012. This could become a protracted affair if not properly managed in a situation where there are other major issues of national importance that will test his presidency- entrenched poverty, rampant corruption and violent crime.

“He is a president who takes office without a party, without well-qualified people he trusts and with a state apparatus that’s really in financial and institutional ruin,” said Edgar Gutierrez, an analyst at San Carlos University in Guatemala.”

The FCN’s core source of support comes from the Defense establishment. The Defense establishment in Guatemala is strong, riddled by corruption, and unpopular, begging the question of Morales’ ability to fulfill the anti-corruption mandate that swept him into office.

  It may be inferred that a critical area in which it appears there will be continuity in foreign policy posture is Guatemala’s military-driven assertion of jurisdiction over the Sarstoon River.

On December 9th 2014 Foreign Minister Carlos Raul Morales was conferred with the Condecaracion de la Orden Mojna Blanca by Guatemalan Defense Minister, Division General Williams Agberto Mansilla Fernandez for his good diplomatic work and his vigilance in pursuing Guatemala’s interests. His unprecedented reappointment as Foreign Minister points to the influence or acquiescence of the military in his selection. He served as a diplomat in Belize, knows Belize’s diplomats, is knowledgeable of the Guatemalan position on the dispute, and is quite capable of articulating and acting on this using the resources at his disposal. He is from the military backed “hardliner” school. This further explains his selection, and also signals that notwithstanding the magnitude of the internal difficulties being faced, President Morales wishes to make no further mistake in his decisions and pronouncements on the dispute.

However, it must be understood that Guatemala by its assertion of jurisdiction over the Sarstoon River is in breach of the Agreement on Confidence Building Measure (2005) Article 1 Part D which reads:

The Confidence Building Measures shall not constitute a total or partial waiver of sovereignty over any territory (land, insular or maritime) claimed by either Party, nor shall any rights of either Party to such territory be prejudiced; nor shall any precedent be established for the strengthening or weakening of either Party’s claims to any such territory. Each Party expressly reserves its rights with respect to its claims of sovereignty over any territory (land, insular, or maritime).

The restoration of Belize’s well established and long respected rights on the Sarstoon River represents an action call  for Belizean diplomacy, including the absolutely necessary dispatch of diplomatic protest notes and the appropriate handling of the issue through the OAS; and if to no avail, unto the United Nations Security Council for resolution. Guatemala’s use of the US-driven CARSI initiative(Central American Regional Security Initiative) to combat drug trafficking and other organized criminal activities) is a pretext and is no justification for its assertion of jurisdiction over the Sarstoon River. This is more so because of  Belize’s intention to establish a Forward Operating Base on the north bank of the river and its proposition to Guatemala that the military to military CBMs are upgraded through the formalization of a riparian protocol that preserves the rights of the Parties. A word on military doctrine. Regional military doctrine, including those of Belize and Guatemala, are synchronized and shaped by US military doctrine – US Southern Command – to address the security objectives of the Central American Regional Security Initiative CARSI. In such circumstance the concept of national sovereignty is trumped by the trans-boundary imperatives which are insensitive to and in fact transcend nation/state  boundary and sovereignty concerns. This is now embedded in the regional military psyches and accordingly exploited as has been observed. But the “Old Sarstoon” is embedded in the Belizean national psyche which demands smart and strong diplomatic action to restore the tarnished status quo.

This brings us to the issue of future relations with Guatemala. In the long term, Belize must endeavor to build and sustain its diplomatic capabilities as a fundamental requirement. The

ICJ solution should not be used as a shield for inaction where vigorous diplomatic action is the necessary course of action as is the case regarding the Sarstoon River. There wlll be  at some point in time a legal solution obtained through the ICJ, whether judicial or legally advised and declared through the United Nations Security Council. The expected result is a sea change in the Guatemalan position with respect to the sovereignty and Belize’s territorial integrity. This should be the ultimate objective of Belizean diplomatic strategy utilizing all facets available … they exist.

David Gibson

Centre for Strategic Studies, Policy Analysis & Research
26 Mahogany St. Belmopan
822 2620

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