BELIZE CITY, Thurs. June 16, 2016–For about one year now, the Republic of Guatemala has been insisting that they are exercising sovereignty over the entire Sarstoon River, which has become the flashpoint of Guatemala’s territorial claim and a massive diplomatic challenge to the United Democratic Party administration led by Prime Minister Dean Barrow, accused of losing the Belize side of the Sarstoon River in the face of persistent military aggression by Guatemalans on Belize’s southern border.
That diplomatic challenge has not been going too well for Belize, and Guatemala has been ratcheting-up its offensive in the international media.
In the wake of bilateral talks that were held between Foreign Ministers of Belize and Guatemala in Istanbul, Turkey, on May 23 and 24, 2016, the Government of Belize immediately revoked a Statutory Instrument which had banned Belizeans for about a month from entering Belize’s side of the Sarstoon River while Government attempted to negotiate a protocol with Guatemala on the use of the river.
The Belize Government’s May 24th press release not only announced the revocation of the Statutory Instrument—which had quickly become the subject of a constitutional claim at the Supreme Court by the Opposition People’s United Party—but it also announced that, “While the formal mechanism is being worked on, the two sides have informally accepted a situation in which there will be untrammeled traffic for Belize’s military and civilians along the Sarstoon.”
Also on May 24th, the Belize Government had issued the English version of a joint press release said to have been developed in partnership with Guatemala in Istanbul, Turkey.
Notably, though, in that joint statement, there was no mention of Belizeans having “untrammeled” access to the Sarstoon River.
The statement mentioned the Sarstoon River in the context of future negotiations to arrive at a mechanism for cooperation in the area:
“Both Ministers recognized the urgent need for and committed to working on the design and development of a mechanism for cooperation in the Sarstoon River, which should include the participation of relevant institutions of both parties and be coordinated by both Foreign Ministries with the participation of the Organization of American States,” the official joint statement said.
That “untrammeled traffic” on the Sarstoon was put to the test three days after the Government made its announcement by media crews from Channel 5 and Kremandala. However, they did not get very far, as they were turned back by members of the Guatemalan Armed Forces (GAF) who approached their vessel and told them that they were in Guatemalan “national waters,” even though they were on the Belize side of the river, as defined in the 1859 Anglo-Guatemalan Treaty.
The Belize Government’s May 24 press release did not go unnoticed by the Guatemalans, either. Four days later, on May 28, they wrote a diplomatic note to Belize Foreign Minister, Hon. Wilfred Elrington. Guatemala has since protested Belize’s assertion that Guatemalans would not prevent Belizeans from using the river.
In the diplomatic note, which was publicized by KREM News via Facebook, the Guatemalans took the Belize Government to task for making statements outside of the joint press release from Istanbul. Furthermore, Guatemala has persisted in claiming the entire Sarstoon River.
The Guatemalan diplomatic note made seven points, but most importantly Guatemala, in its fourth point, stressed: “It should be recalled that with the intention of maintaining good neighborly relations, it was agreed in Istanbul to negotiate a cooperation mechanism for the Sarstoon River, even though Guatemala reiterates that the river is an integral part of its territory.
“To achieve that mechanism, the Guatemalan Foreign Minister was very clear in stating that it is necessary to start a process in which by Guatemala several state institutions must be involved, including the Ministry of National Defense, and the next steps to reach an agreement on it were discussed.”
The diplomatic note further stated, “Guatemala also emphasized that the Heads of both Armed Forces will have to define the procedures to be enacted in the river until the final mechanism is agreed.”
In its next point, the diplomatic note stressed that the joint statement issued from Istanbul must be the one published in both countries to avoid different interpretations.
“As soon as the Guatemalan Foreign Minister was informed of the Belizean statement dated May 24th, he immediately expressed his concern to Foreign Minister Elrington and Ambassador Rosado because such statement did not reflect the content of the conversation and told them that that was the reason of having agreed to the contents of the joint statement,” the diplomatic note said.
When questioned by News 5 today, though, Elrington said that the problem lies in the understanding of the agreement and its transmission to the Guatemalan people.
Belize and Guatemala are due to hold bilateral talks next Tuesday in Washington, DC, and the Organization of American States (OAS) is expecting to firm up a resolution to support the adjudication of the matter at the International Court of Justice.