No date has been set for Belize’s referendum. The voter turnout in Guatemala was low.
GUATEMALA CITY, Mon. Apr. 16, 2018– Voters in Guatemala went to the polls yesterday, Sunday, April 15, to cast ballots in a referendum (popular consultation) to determine whether they would submit their country’s more than a hundred and fifty-year old territorial dispute with Belize to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for a final, juridical solution.
The Guatemalan referendum is a result of the Organization-of-American-States-brokered compromis, which both Belize and Guatemala signed in 2008, committing them to have the peoples of both countries decide by means of referenda whether to take the dispute to the ICJ.
A preliminary report about the results of the Guatemalan ICJ referendum was released by the TSE (Tribunal Supremo Electoral de la República de Guatemala) and it indicated that 24.97% of Guatemalan voters cast their votes in the referendum. A reported 95.87 % of those voting, voted yes, while 4% voted no, to taking the claim to the ICJ for a final, definitive settlement.
There are 7.5 million registered voters in Guatemala, and only 1.7 million voted in the ICJ referendum.
The question that was put to Guatemalan voters in the referendum is the same question that will be put to Belizean voters when the ICJ referendum is held: “Do you agree that any legal claim of Guatemala against Belize relating to land and insular territories and to any maritime areas pertaining to these territories should be submitted to the International Court of Justice for final settlement and that it determines finally the boundaries of the respective territories and areas of the parties?”
Following the balloting in Guatemala’s referendum, Guatemala’s vice president, Jafeth Cabrera, announced that the Government of Belize will hold its national referendum in May, as part of its commitment to resolve the territorial dispute at the ICJ.
Agencia Guatemalteca de Noticias reported that Cabrera said: “The conversation with the Belizean Foreign Minister, Wilfred Elrington, was about resolving the dispute once and for all, and they promised to do it next month.”
Cabrera reportedly said that he and Elrington discussed it during the Summit of the Americas in Peru.
The Government of Belize, however, has not officially announced a date for Belize’s referendum.
Belize’s ambassador to Guatemala, H.E. Ambassador Alexis Rosado, told Marleni Cuellar of News5, in an interview earlier this morning, “I don’t understand where the misunderstanding came from.”
What is notable, however, is that, after a massive public education campaign which cost Guatemala around US 40 million dollars, only 25 percent of Guatemalans who are eligible to vote, came out to cast ballots in the referendum.
Members of the Belizean media, who visited Guatemala City to observe the referendum process, interviewed a number of Guatemalan voters as they exited the various polling areas.
For the most part, the majority of those interviewed indicated that they voted yes. When some of them were asked how they formed their position, some said that they learned about the process due to the public education campaign that had been carried out in the country. There were others, some a little older, who were of the view that Britain and Guatemala had a “falling out” and Britain did not respect Guatemala and took Belize from Guatemala, and the referendum would, in fact, put a portion of Belize back in Guatemala’s control.
When Belize received its independence from Britain in September 1981, Guatemala refused to recognize the country, and had gone so far as to close its borders with Belize. However, in 1992, Guatemala, under the leadership of its president, Jorge Antonio Serrano Elías, finally recognized the independent state of Belize.
In an effort to help settle the claim, Belize’s parliament passed the Maritime Areas Act, limiting Belize to 3 miles of territorial sea in the south, instead of the 12 miles to which Belize is entitled under international law. That concession on Belize’s part did not bring about a resolution of the dispute.
Negotiations between Belize and Guatemala continued without yielding any tangible results. In 2002, the two countries entered the Facilitation process with facilitators Sir Shridath Ramphal and Mr. Paul Reichler. The following year, 2003, Belize and Guatemala agreed to an adjacency zone at the western border that would be managed by the OAS. By 2005, Belize and Guatemala, again under the auspices of the OAS Secretary General, entered the “Confidence-Building” phase.
Following the failure of the two countries to resolve the territorial dispute, the OAS again stepped in and the idea of taking the dispute to the ICJ was impressed upon both governments, which signed the Special Agreement in 2008 to have the ICJ resolve the dispute, but first both countries have to put the question to their peoples in a referendum.
At the time of the signing of the Special Agreement (compromis) in 2008, both Belize and Guatemala were tasked with holding referenda simultaneously. That did not happen, and seven years later, in 2015, Belize and Guatemala signed an amendment to the compromis in Guatemala City at the Guatemalan Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That amendment permitted both countries to hold referenda on separate dates.
The Guatemalans renewed their claim to Belize in October 1999, and this time they moved away from the old claim that was based on the 1859 Treaty. Guatemala’s claim this time was based on Spain’s 1494 claim to Belize.
In the new territorial claim, Guatemala claims half of Belize’s land mass from the Sibun River going south, which includes most of the Belize and Cayo Districts, and all of the Stann Creek and Toledo Districts.
The present claim that Guatemala hopes will prevail at the ICJ is to 4,738 square miles, or 53 percent of Belize.
The German publication DW, in reporting on Guatemala’s referendum said: “A final resolution could see Guatemala, a former Spanish colony, gain legal control over territory and waters currently administered by Belize, once a British colony. The disputed area covers some 12,270 square kilometers (4,737 square miles) — about half of Belize.”
As the OAS funding for the adjacency zone continues to dwindle, the organization holds out hopes that both Belize and Guatemala will soon have carried out separate referenda to have the territorial claim resolved at the ICJ.