Features — 30 April 2013 — by Adele Ramos

“The referendum is off”

Guatemalan officials have signaled to their Belizean counterparts that the referendum programmed since a year ago, for voters in Belize and Guatemala to simultaneously go to the polls on October 6, 2013, to weigh in on whether the territorial differendum should be settled at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), has been indefinitely postponed.

Prime Minister Dean Barrow made the announcement this morning at his first quarterly press conference for 2013. He said that the parties held a bilateral meeting on the occasion of the 5th Summit of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS) held in Haiti last week.

That meeting came on the heels of a meeting Prime Minister Barrow held with Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, earlier that week, in order to underscore Belize’s position, as well as to signal to the UN that Belize may need further UN support.

He said that Belize indicated to the UN Secretary-General that it reserves the right to ask the UN to play a more active role, in terms of the way forward. Foreign Affairs Minister Wilfred Elrington told Amandala that this support could be requested from the UN Security Council, should the situation deteriorate between Guatemala and Belize.

“It’s been clear, I think, to all of us in this country, including the Government of Belize, that the Guatemalans are at a point where they are no longer prepared to proceed with the referendum that was agreed in consequence of the special treaty—at least not on the date that’s been fixed, not on the October 2013 date,” Barrow told the media today.

Barrow said that Belize would not accept this position as official until Guatemala communicates that to the Organization of American States (OAS).

“We made it clear that for us, Belize needed to record its objection to the fact that the Guatemalans, as it appeared, were unilaterally withdrawing from the agreed date—the mutually agreed date for the holding of the referendums. I signaled that, in our view, that unilateral withdrawal quite possibly constituted a breach of the special agreement…,” Barrow explained.

What does that mean for the status of the special agreement? Barrow made it clear that his government would like to see the ICJ Special Agreement of 2008, as well as the 2005 Confidence Building Measures, remain in force.

“I think the special agreement has to be kept in place. I genuinely don’t see any other option,” Barrow told the press, adding that “It is not in Belize’s interest to repudiate the compromis [ICJ special agreement], because of Guatemala’s unilateral action.”

He also urged for relations to be managed in such a way as to avoid the flashpoints on the border. In addition, he called on Guatemala to refrain from acts of provocation, such as propagating maps with the territory of Belize appended.

Barrow said that he asked Ban Ki-moon to use the UN’s offices to urge the Guatemalans “to act in a way that will portray respect for Belize’s sovereignty and separate identity.”

The Prime Minister said that on the occasion of the ACS meeting in Haiti, he also talked briefly with the two Caribbean heads of state present, from The Bahamas and Jamaica, about Belize’s concerns and he had a quick one-on-one with Secretary-General of CARICOM, Irwin LaRocque.

He said that the bilateral meeting with Minister Elrington and his team was probably the most important development.

Speaking with the media after the PM’s press conference, Elrington said that the Guatemalan delegation indicated to Belize that they have informed their Congress that the referendum slated for October 6, 2013 will be suspended. They are expecting a response from Congress, after which they will communicate to the OAS Secretary-General, who is expected to contact Belize on the course of action proposed.

Barrow said that Belize is to be applauded for the fact that it was prepared to stick with the legal, binding agreement under the compromis, to hold a referendum and to honor what the people of Belize decide.

He said that Guatemala “will experience a good deal of diplomatic fallout for their decision.”

“We must be sure that there is support for the view that I am propounding,” said Barrow.

He elaborated that “We need to keep the special agreement in place”… and ensure “that there would be continuing consensus, as I think there was before the Guatemalans pulled the old switcheroo on us… for the referendum process to take place…”

Barrow added that, “All sorts of luminaries in this country have come out to say they support the process. How they would vote in a referendum is altogether another matter.”

Will that ICJ vote ever happen? The Guatemalans said they are very desirous of going ahead with the process, and that they want to keep the special agreement intact but do have problems with some of their parliamentarians, Elrington reported.

He indicated that contact between the parliamentarians on both sides of the border will make it easier when the matter comes up again for them to agree on an alternate date.

Elrington said that the British had indicated in the 1930s that they were prepared to go to the ICJ to settle the differendum, but the Guatemalans did not agree to do that unconditionally until 2008.

“We have been making steady gains, substantial gains…” he told the press.

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