BELIZE CITY, Fri. Apr. 27, 2018– Ever since Guatemalan voters went to the polls on April 15, and voted yes in their referendum to taking their country’s territorial claim to the International Court of Justice, (ICJ), the question of the Guatemalan claim and Belize’s impending referendum has been dominating the national discussion. The government’s only input in this process has been a post-referendum congratulatory message to Guatemala, which claims more than half of Belize’s territory and all the country’s islands, except for St. George’s Caye.
Kremandala, as a news organization, has been committed to providing all relevant information to the Belizean public on this very existential subject. This morning, attorney Lisa Shoman, S.C., a former Foreign Minister of Belize and PUP Opposition senator, who has wide-ranging knowledge about the Guatemalan claim and the process for submitting it to the jurisdiction of the ICJ, took to the airwaves of Krem Radio’s and Krem TV’s WUB morning show with co-host Nuri Muhammad, to expound on the matter of Belize’s upcoming referendum, and progress or lack of diplomatic progress made by the Barrow administration regarding Guatemala’s unfounded claim.
Muhammad opened the discussion by asking Shoman about the current state of affairs at the Sarstoon River, in light of a recent pronouncement by Foreign Minister, Wilfred Elrington, that Belizeans are paying too much attention to the Sarstoon River situation with Guatemala.
Shoman explained that the Sarstoon River, along its entire length, is a boundary river; and that it is Belize’s most southern border with Guatemala; that everything north from the midpoint of the river right up to the Sarstoon Island is Belizean internal waters. “It is not no-man’s land; it is not Guatemalan waters; everything north of the midpoint of that river is indisputable Belizean internal waters,” Shoman declared.
Muhammad asked Shoman if, from her view as a diplomat, the Sarstoon matter (Guatemalan aggression on the Sarstoon) should be treated cautiously.
“No,” Shoman replied, “Every issue between two neighbors has to be treated with care. You cannot, however, be so cautious that you’re downright pusillanimous. You can’t be afraid to assert your rights. If it is for you, you must act as if it is for you. That is what is known as exercising effective administration and control. And you are required to do that even if you do not have a portion of your land or maritime area being claimed by another state.”
Muhammad then suggested that Guatemala is doing exactly that.
Shoman said that is what concerns her, noting “and it does no good for the foreign minister to say ‘well, you need to understand they dispute it.’ Yes, they dispute it, but so what? We assert to the world that this is ours. And by a UN resolution, the world, except for Guatemala, supported our territorial integrity—and that has to mean with the borders that we had at the time, which included the Sarstoon.”
Shoman went on to expound about another boundary river, the Rio Hondo, which is a boundary river that we share with Mexico. She explained that we have no problem there, and 99 percent of Belizeans do not know that we have not settled our maritime areas with Mexico.
Shoman spoke of a trip on a boat to find an area in Bacalar Chico where her grandfather had a property. “Going through the back, we completely shot past the Bacalar Chico canal, which is easy to do, by the way,” she said. Shoman explained that when they landed in Mexico, “nobody never came out and asked, ‘what are you doing here.’ You know why—Mexico is a good neighbor. The best neighbor you could ask for. Contrast that with what’s going on in the Sarstoon.”
Shoman pointed out the most recent incident of harassment by the Guatemalan Armed Forces (GAF) on the Sarstoon River, and their threats to a Belizean boat captain who had an American citizen on board his boat. The GAF told him that he had to check in at Livingston, otherwise he was not to return—or they (the GAF) would take them to Livingston.
Muhammad asked Shoman to elucidate on the Confidence-Building Measures. These form the substance of the 2002 agreement that Belize and Guatemala signed under the auspices of the Organization of American States (OAS), that no kind of aggressive behavior would be displayed by the two parties.
Shoman said it had been signed by representatives of both countries, and part of it was that neither country should countenance inflammatory remarks. “Nuri, you can’t put ads saying, if you like these beautiful islands of Belize, vote yes,” Shoman said. “That’s inflammatory. You can’t permit the kind of rhetoric that has been going on in Guatemala. I don’t care if Jimmy Morales is their [the Guatemalan military] boy; he must show the political will to stand down the GAF,” Shoman commented.
Shoman went on to explain that in 2007 there were two incidents in the Sarstoon, She said that Eamon Courtenay faced one, as foreign minister, and she faced the other. “The foreign minister at the time was Haroldo Rodas,” Shoman said. “Foreign Minister Rodas, on both occasions when we met to protest these incidents, said to us clearly that there is no political directive for them to do this. When it happened in late 2007 and I dealt with it, at first they were trying to say ‘well, why you don’t use the northern channel around Sarstoon Island, and we use the south.’ We said to them, no, we will use any of the two channels, because up to the midpoint of that river is our internal waters and you will not tell us where to go. And they said, we hear you loud and clear. There was not another recorded incident that we know about, unless we are being lied to, until 2015,” she said.
Shoman broke down what had happened between Belize and Guatemala, when she spent two weeks in Antigua, Guatemala, with the bipartisan team (Shoman was a representative of the then PUP leader at the time, Francis Fonseca, and was part of the negotiation process when the two countries came up with fourteen bilateral agreements that were geared at helping them be better neighbors and inspire confidence in both parties to go to the ICJ).
“Those fourteen agreements were part of a road map that was conceived after the Guatemalans had utterly failed to have a referendum in 2014,” Shoman recalled. “Francis Fonseca’s instruction to me was clear: ‘Tell these people that we are not going to sign anything, as an Opposition, unless it is brought to the Belizean people and show them weh we di sign.’ I communicated my leader’s instructions clearly. I was told, yeah, we wahn put it up pan some website and dem could watch it. That’s not what we were talking talk about. We were talking about somebody going out there and explaining it, so that people didn’t feel like things were happening behind their backs. Anyway, no such thing was done, and the government did not invite the Opposition to the signing of those fourteen agreements, which was done in December by Dean Barrow and the now disgraced president, Otto Perez Molina…big hug up and thing da Placencia, plane land and all kind a thing.”
Shoman went on to explain that later in 2015, while the Guatemalan government was imploding, Belize agreed with them… to de-link the referendum processes. She said that up to now, “absolutely no good reason has ever been given to Belizeans as to why that happened.”
“So you are telling us now that there was no justified reason for having the referendum on the different days,” Nuri Muhammad asked.
“Not to my mind,” Shoman replied, “It was done for the convenience of Guatemala.”
Shoman explained that the referendum was designed that way so that the results in Guatemala didn’t influence Belize and the other way around.
“You are telling us now that it was a unilateral decision, wasn’t a joint decision of all parties in Belize,” Muhammad said.
“No, it was not,” Shoman said. “To the point that if you go back in the news media, you will see the Leader of the Opposition saying that is not right.”
Shoman said: “I was told that it was going to happen by an email from Ambassador Leslie, and I communicated very clearly: ‘Are you asking me if this should be done or is this a done deal?’ And I was told it is a done deal, we’re just asking you to accompany us.”
“I felt very strongly about this,” Shoman said. “I felt it was a complete reversal from what we had agreed to in 2008, and worse that, remember the timeline. You look back in history and you analyze things. February the dory was seized…they already had started, to behave bad in the Sarstoon. And in April we are doing these people two favors, not one, but two: de-link the referendum processes and change our referendum law. Me never have no big problem fu change the referendum law, as long as we mi di change the referendum law fu all referendum across the board. But that was not the case,” she remarked.
Shoman said there was no other bipartisan involvement until 2015 in Istanbul, Turkey, by which time the GAF was already behaving as if they owned the Sarstoon. She said that since the failure of Istanbul, there has been no other bipartisan approach to the diplomatic approach with Guatemala.
“We should never have de-linked without a Sarstoon Protocol…” Shoman said.
Shoman stated that if we go to a referendum now, under the present set of circumstances, the Belizean people will say no. “The result will be an overwhelming no if a referendum is held in the next six months,” she said.
Shoman went on to say that there has to be a repeal of that section of the Maritime Areas Act that limits us to three miles. She said that Belize needs “a foreign minister that puts it out there that Belize has internationally recognized borders.”
“There is no Sarstoon Protocol,” Shoman said, “We still have the Maritime Areas Act that we should repeal, and our minister keeps saying that we should go to the ICJ. But we are not hearing anything about Guatemala’s bad behavior.”
“I say no, until you get these conditions dealt with. If we get a no vote—that is damaging to our international optics…It is better for us to wait, repeal the Maritime Areas Act, have a partner which is respectful, and go ahead with the education program,” Shoman said.