BELIZE CITY, Thurs. May 26, 2016–As we go to press tonight, there is still no formal accord between Belize and Guatemala coming out of bilateral talks recently held between Belize and Guatemala in Istanbul, Turkey, on the occasion of a United Nations meeting.
However, in a joint statement released on Tuesday, May 24, at the conclusion of those talks, the parties indicated that Foreign Affairs ministers from both sides “recognized the urgent need for and committed to working on the design and development of a mechanism for cooperation in the Sarstoon River…”
The joint statement added that the mechanism “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.”
At the Istanbul talks, Magdalena Talamas, representative of the OAS Secretary General, joined Belize’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Wilfred Elrington and Guatemala’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Carlos Raúl Morales Moscoso. Ambassador Eamon Courtenay, representative of the Opposition People’s United Party (PUP), also traveled to Turkey for the meeting, and so did two officials from Guatemala’s Congress.
Prime Minister Dean Barrow told journalists on Wednesday, “There is an agreement now that we will negotiate a formal protocol for the Sarstoon, and in the meantime, clearly, Belizeans can feel free to go to the Sarstoon; that is why we have revoked the statutory instrument that was in place.”
He declined to say much more, stating that he had not been at the meeting.
Courtenay, a former Foreign Minister of Belize, shared more details with the media. He told Amandala today that Elrington was very clear that Belize will be negotiating on the basis of the country’s recognized boundaries, as detailed in the 1859 treaty between Guatemala and Britain. Courtenay said that the first position—and for him the final position—has to be based on respect for the established borders.
Although Barrow said that there is no fixed timeline for an agreement to be reached, Courtenay told the press that Belize’s Ambassador to Guatemala, H.E. Alexis Rosado, and Guatemala’s Ambassador to Belize, H.E. Manuel Roldan Barillas, who had recently been recalled by Guatemala, have been tasked with planning a schedule of meetings to discuss the Sarstoon situation. Both ambassadors were also in Istanbul for the talks.
We asked what Guatemala’s stated position was on the Sarstoon, but Courtenay told us that Morales did not articulate a position, so he does not know what that position is. He said that given Belize’s inflexible position, it will take a tremendous amount of creativity to reach an accord.
Meanwhile, Ret’d Colonel George Lovell, Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of National Security, told our newspaper this evening that so far, there have been no recent reports of problems in the Sarstoon. He reaffirmed the official stance, that Belize’s border runs on the south side of the Sarstoon Island along the deepest channel and said that “we will administer” all those areas considered to be within Belize, according to the 1859 treaty. Belizean civilians and military will have free access, Lovell told us.
On Tuesday, Cabinet announced that the statutory instrument which the Government had passed on April 28, 2016, to stop Belizeans from accessing our side of the Sarstoon, pending the outcome of talks between the parties, had been revoked.
Courtenay maintains that the SI was an unlawful exercise of state power, bad policy and bad in law, and he said that the Opposition will press ahead with its challenge, claiming that the law was unconstitutional.
Whereas the statutory instrument stopped Belizeans for more than three weeks from venturing to the river, Guatemalans who illegally fish in the area remained unfettered.
According to Wil Maheia, founder of the Belize Territorial Volunteers (BTV), they went to the area on Sunday and Monday and saw no less than five Guatemalans in Belizean waters fishing illegally. Maheia said that one (of whom he posted a photo on social media) admitted that he lives on the Guatemalan side of the Sarstoon, so “they broke the new SI.”
“So how come the military in Belize go out of their way to stop the BTV from going to the Sarstoon but they have not stopped the Guatemalans?” Maheia questioned.
Courtenay told journalists yesterday that the SI “violated our constitutional rights and the constitutional rights of many Belizeans who attempted to go there, and we ask the court to still pronounce on it for the future.”
In the Cabinet release Tuesday, Government said 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 river.
In an interview aired by 7 News, Courtenay said that “…we do not expect that the Guatemalan naval forces and military are going to continue to stop Belizeans or other people from using the Sarstoon River.”
Courtenay added that, “We will exercise our territorial rights and our sovereignty over that portion of it and we do not expect the Guatemalan naval forces to enter into those waters unless they have to. As I understand it, there are some shallow parts where you would have to go during navigation, but other than that, we do not expect them to enter Belizean waters, nor do we expect them to attempt to stop anyone from using the waters.”
Courtenay told Amandala that he was told by someone who used to frequent the area that there are areas of the river that may be shallow and which may require navigation over the boundary, but this, Courtenay said, would be deemed to be innocent passage. The Guatemalans making their way to the north of the Sarstoon Island, which is in Belizean territory, and blocking Belizean civilian and military vessels, as they had been doing in recent weeks, would not continue doing so.
We conveyed to Courtenay the latest update from Lovell, that there have been no recent reports of aggression by Guatemala at the Sarstoon.
“Let us hope that that continues,” Courtenay urged.
In the past, there have been instances where the Guatemalan officials have appeared to reach an accord with Belize, but the Guatemalan military continued to perpetrate acts of aggression on the ground, as was recently the case when the Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales held bilateral talks with Prime Minister Barrow in the US, while Guatemalan soldiers nonetheless continued to block Belizeans from entering the Sarstoon.
“Saying something in a diplomatic meeting is one thing; the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so we need to see what happens beginning now, when we exercise our rights to use the Sarstoon, when our citizens and when the military exercise their right,” Courtenay told the press on Wednesday.