General — 07 November 2008 — by Adele Ramos
The International Court of Justice – ICJ. Many Belizeans don’t know what it is, what it represents, and what it can do to bring a final end to Guatemala’s claim over at least half our country. Many may know that it is an arm of the United Nations, and that it has the powers to decide a dispute between nations, but there are still lingering questions as to exactly whether the ICJ can indeed bring a final settlement to the Belize-Guatemala territorial dispute.
The Government of Belize says that through public education sessions in the coming months, it intends to inform Belizeans of all they need to know before they are asked to vote in a historic national referendum to decide whether or not they want the ICJ to answer such a critical question as to how Belize is defined with respect to its borders.
For almost three decades, there has been talk of a referendum on the Belize-Guatemala dispute – first with the contentious Heads of Agreement of 1981, and consequently with the Ramphal/Reichler proposals presented in 2002 under the OAS regime, and flatly rejected by Guatemala in 2003. The record shows that this is where the process fell down, when Guatemala’s government formally rejected the Ramphal/Richler proposals and did not follow through with the intended referendum, so neither did Belize. What will be different this time around?
The decision by the Belize Cabinet to endorse a still undisclosed “compromis” or a “special agreement” with Guatemala, to take the dispute to the ICJ for final and binding arbitration, has been the subject of fierce debate for the last two weeks. On Monday, Prime Minister Dean Barrow addressed the issue when he appeared on KREM Radio’s WUB morning talk show.
The assumption of Prime Minister Barrow, who has publicly supported the ICJ resolution, is that the process will “unravel” with Guatemala.
“If I am to be candid, perhaps even subconsciously, one of the reasons why I feel that way is because I believe the process will unravel, and it will unravel in Guatemala,” he said on the live broadcast carried on radio, television and the Internet.
This month, foreign affairs representatives of Belize and Guatemala are slated to sign the “compromis”, but the agreement will still have to be ratified by Parliament, and also put to the people of Belize in a national referendum, Barrow said.
He did not indicate at what point in time the entire “compromis” document would be made available to the public.
And because of the level of suspicion that attends the use of the French word for the agreement, which simply means a mutual compromise between the parties, Barrow said from here on, he would simply refer to it as the “…special agreement. That is the terminology I am going to use from now on.”
He said Government could not make public a document that has not been signed and “…that is, as I understand it, basically agreed to by the two sides, but that might still be subject to internal legal processes. What’s the harm in not making it public until after it’s signed?”
The need to take the agreement to Parliament, and to the people in the referendum provides “the ultimate backstop,” he commented.
“What the special agreement is doing, in terms of the question that it will seek to put to the people, the logistics, of how the process will work, are all subject to the need for the Belizean people to approve these arrangements in a referendum. Once the Belizean people say NO, that’s the end of the story. So in my view, as long as there is that ultimate comfort, there is no harm done…”
Barrow said that while he will strongly urge for ratification and make it known why he supports the ICJ process, he will not campaign for a “yes” vote in the referendum.
The Prime Minister acknowledges again that there is a risk in taking the matter to the ICJ, but he presumes that justice would be on the side of Belize.
Both sides will accept that the ICJ will determine that the Belize borders, in his view, are what they are and that the Guatemalans will accept the ruling, Barrow went on to say.
“There will be some bi-national commission thereafter, to actually do the on-the-ground physical demarcation. They are committing to accepting this. If they play the fool, the OAS would step in and that demarcation will take place,” said Barrow, speaking confidently about the process.
He suggested, on the other hand, that the process won’t even get that far.
“I want to be sure that there is no misstep on our part,” said Barrow, “because I am certain there will be missteps over there. And I am certain this thing will come to naught…that is my strong feeling and I want to be sure certain that when it comes to naught again, we can say, ‘Aha! International community, once more, right is on the side of Belize.’”
The tangled processes purportedly seeking to settle the Belize-Guatemala dispute have, of course, never been clear-cut, and the various historical accounts will make it crystal clear that even when things appeared to be final, they never really were.
On Monday night, I read the 62-page booklet, Belize @ 27 – Still Seeking a Settlement with Guatemala, authored by Cabinet Secretary, James S. Murphy. He has written extensively about the Belize-Guatemala dispute – a dispute which really started out five centuries ago as a pursuit for colonial power by Europeans over what had come to be called “the New World” on the presumption that the then Pope had divine authority to vest the lands in whomever he chose.
Murphy writes of the papal bulls (or declarations) under which most of the Americas was put into the hands of Spain, including the territory we now know as Belize. Guatemala claims that it inherited the land under dispute. The convention of 1859 was the first to be signed between Guatemala and England, with respect of Belize’s territory, and Guatemala claims that a breach by Britain in article 7 of that treaty – whereby Britain failed to fulfill its promise to build a communication route from Guatemala City to the east coast, is the reason why it maintains its claim over all Belize’s land from the Sibun to the Sarstoon, as well as all the territorial sea and the cayes.
According to Murphy, it was not until 1940 that Guatemala announced that it had unilaterally terminated the 1859 convention, citing Britain’s failure to execute article 7. It claimed that Belize had “reverted” to being a part of its domain, and the country’s 1945 constitution brazenly declared that Belize was included in Guatemala’s territory. Even post-Independence, Guatemala has not relinquished its claim, even though in 1991, under the presidency of Jorge Serrano, it acknowledged the fact of Belize’s independence.
That claim remains etched in the minds of many Guatemala’s citizens. In 1993, a Guatemalan student at the U.S. university I was attending uttered those infamous words in the midst of our Central American friends: “Belice es nuestro.” My Belizean friend from Corozal and I took her on immediately, and she tried to defend her position by pulling out her Guatemalan map which showed Belize separated from Guatemala by an inconspicuous, broken line. More noticeably, a bold, solid line was drawn around Belize and Guatemala in a manner that lumped our two countries together as one. Needless to say, I was outraged! My Belizean friend and I both insisted that that claim was ludicrous, and we recited from our very limited factual base of information to defend ourselves against what we understood, as educated, young women of Belize, to be an outrageous attack against our sovereignty and Belizean identity. The fact that we spoke English far better than any of our Central American colleagues (and did not have to take ESL classes) was one of the assets we boasted, as we drove home our point that it was neither Guatemala nor Spain who gave our nation independence – it was Britain.
It is this kind of Guatemalan mindset that has haunted Belize even 27 years after becoming an independent nation. It was very likely this same kind of mindset that motivated a team of 25 Guatemalan soldiers to kidnap a 4-member patrol of Belize security officers from the Belize side of the border, and threaten to charge them for illegal entry into Guatemala and the possession of illegal arms.
In 1975, Guatemala put its troops on the Belize border, threatening to invade, as it demanded the south of Belize, from Sibun to Sarstoon, which it claimed had been illegally occupied by the British. In 2008, Belize continues to suffer from repeated incursions into that part of Belize to which Guatemala continues to stake its claim. Even our soldiers have been on the receiving end of those attacks. What will end this repeated affront to our sovereignty and our territorial integrity?
Even while Mr. Barrow has expressed hope and confidence in the ICJ process, he, too, has accepted that the ICJ could not guarantee Belize 100% of an end to this risk of military invasion by Guatemala – though he thinks such an invasion is not probable.
“I have to concede that even if we win hands down…at the ICJ, that can never foreclose against the possibility that the Guatemalans officially as a Government would try to take military action against Belize. I think it’s very, very unlikely given that they are still democratic, but again, they could have a coup, they could go back to the bad old days.”
Barrow opines that “the weight of the international opinion – the weight of the international community” would in such an event be on Belize’s side. We don’t know what level of comfort, if any, that gives to Belizeans.
As someone has said on the radio, one good way to deliberate on this very important national question is to ask: What Would Goldson Do? (WWGD)

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