Features — 31 July 2015 — by Adele Ramos
Officials press ICJ agenda at Belize-Guatemala peace forum

BELIZE CITY, Tues. July 28, 2015–At a rare public forum held by officials of the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Belize Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Tuesday night, July 28, 2015 at the Bliss Center for the Performing Arts, the presenters kept campaigning for the territorial differendum to be taken to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the claim that it is the only way to arrive at a speedy resolution to the age-old problem.

“We need to go to the ICJ because that’s a precondition for us to be able to demarcate our land boundary, as well as our sea boundaries. At present, we are a nation without defined and demarcated boundaries, and the only issue remaining is for us to get a pronouncement on the boundaries…” argued Belize Foreign Minister, Wilfred “Sedi” Elrington in a statement which some protestors at the event deem to be a contradiction of Elrington’s earlier statement that the country’s borders are already defined in the 1859 Boundary Treaty between the UK and Guatemala.

Elrington claims, “…we are a nation without defined and demarcated boundaries…”

“We are very close to reaching a final solution to the differendum and for this reason, more than ever we need to continue to push the process forward,” OAS Secretary-General, Luis Almagro, of Uruguay, said in a videotaped message at the forum.

Almagro underscored that the people of Belize and the people of Guatemala will be the ones to decide on the referendum, but it will be necessary to carry out comprehensive information campaigns so that when the time comes for the referenda, both populations can make an informed decision.

Magdalena Talamas of Uruguay, Chief of the OAS Peace Fund, pointed to three territorial mediation cases with which the OAS has been involved: the Caribbean sea maritime dispute between Honduras and Nicaragua in 2000; assistance to complete the demarcation of an international border between Honduras and El Salvador in 2003/2004; and the talks which began in 2000 between Belize and Guatemala—and which 15 years later remain ongoing.

She said that after the negotiation process failed in 2002, due to Guatemala’s rejection of the Ramphal/Reichler proposals, the OAS recommended either international arbitration or adjudication at the International Court of Justice.

The former Secretary General of the OAS, Jose Miguel Insulza, recommended the ICJ. The parties accepted, and on December 8, 2008, Belize and Guatemala signed a special agreement to take the matter to the ICJ – but only if simultaneous referenda in both countries result in a clear “yes” vote.

Those referenda were initially planned for October 6, 2013; but Guatemala backed out of the referendum.

Talamas said that the countries later agreed to create the necessary conditions to build a climate of confidence conducive to fixing a new date, and that was done through a Road Map dated January 2014, and the accompanying plan of action which called for a joint committee tasked with carrying out a series of activities.

This, she said, led to a landmark moment, with numerous bilateral exchanges and 16 agreements in key action areas, including tourism, interconnection, and a temp workers’ program, concluded within 6 months. She said that 13 agreements were signed in Placencia last year and 3 informal agreements were signed in the area of security.

Another major development was the signing of a protocol to amend the 2008 ICJ special agreement. Talamas provided a different explanation for the May 2015 amendment of the special agreement, than had been previously conveyed. She said that because the political reality is not the same in both countries—with Guatemala holding elections on Sundays and Belize holding its elections on weekdays, a matter which, we note, was not officially stated as the issue when the original Sunday referendum was set in 2013—there was a suggestion to amend the ICJ special agreement to give the parties the option of holding the referenda on different days, rather than simultaneously, depending on the national interest.

“That is how we arrived at the protocol to the special agreement signed in May…” she claimed.

There is more to the story than she conveyed, though. Guatemala had asked for the amendment to the ICJ special agreement on the claim that it wanted to have the referendum in the second round of elections this October. GOB officials had also said that Guatemala wanted Belize to hold its referendum first – but Belizean officials rejected that push.

Of note is that Guatemala failed to meet its own 3-month deadline within which Congress would have had to approve the matter in order for it to be placed on the ballot; which means that again, the referendum in that country has been put off.

Talamas also claimed that there has not been a single confrontation between the armed forces of Belize and Guatemala – a very different reality prior to mediation, she said.

However, she did not mention that days after the special agreement was amended this May, armed Guatemala Naval officers tried to chase Belize Coast Guard officers off Sarstoon Island, well inside Belizean territory, where the Belizeans were lawfully conducting official surveillance to establish a Forward Operating Base to check illegal activities in the south, believed to be perpetrated primarily by Guatemalans inside Belizean territory.

Guatemala’s Foreign Minister, Carlos Raul Morales, a career diplomat, described Belize and Guatemala as sister populations, partners and allies for development.

However, he was challenged by persons in the audience when he remarked that Guatemala is not Belize’s enemy; and neither is Belize Guatemala’s enemy.

The question that came from the floor was: “…why is Guatemala claiming its neighbor’s land?”

Morales pressed ahead, talking about the need to maintain peace even while trying to resolve differences.

Belize Foreign Minister Wilfred Elrington spoke next of a time when proposals were on the table to make Belize the 23rd Department of Guatemala, to give Guatemala control of the Ranguana and Sapodilla cayes, as well as unimpeded right to pass through Belize without having to pay fees.

He added that in March 1981, only months before Belize attained its Independence, there were proposals to give Guatemala control of certain aspects of Belize’s national defense and even the country’s assets; but on September 21 that year, Belize got its Independence without losing a square inch or a blade of grass.

Elrington said that the country received Independence with its borders intact, based on the 1859 Boundary Treaty, which, he said, articulates the coordinates of the western border but didn’t deal with the sea.

The text of the treaty previously provided to Amandala by the Government of Belize states, in fact, that the boundary defined includes Belize’s borders with Guatemala both to the south and west of the country.

It states that, “It is agreed between her Britannic Majesty and the Republic of Guatemala that the boundary between the Republic and the British Settlement and Possessions in the Bay of Honduras, as they existed previous to and on the 1st of January 1850, and have continued to exist up to the present time, was and is as follows:

“Beginning at the mouth of the River Sarstoon in the Bay of Honduras, and proceeding up the mid channel thereof to Gracias a Dios Falls; then turning to the right and continuing by a line drawn direct from Gracias a Dios Falls to Garbutt’s Falls on the River Belize, and from Garbutt’s Falls due north until it strikes the Mexican frontier.”

The treaty says that all the territory to the north and east of the line of boundary above described, belongs to Her Britannic Majesty—which now pertains to post-Independence Belize.
According to Elrington, the Adjacency Zone defined under the confidence building measures (CBMs) between Belize and Guatemala is the identical line established under the 1859 treaty, and Belize has lost nothing.

The Minister noted, however, that Guatemala has since sought to repudiate the 1859 treaty, and so they do not refer to a boundary between the two countries.

Elrington said that his own understanding “as to why we need to go to the ICJ,” is because even though Guatemala recognizes Belize as a separate and sovereign nation, since Guatemala has sought to repudiate the 1859 treaty, they cannot recognize Belize’s territory and “theoretically in their view, there is no boundary,” and “Belize is just an extension of Guatemala.”

Elrington said that it is strictly a legal issue, and the British were resolute in telling Guatemala that if they believe the 1859 boundary treaty is no good, they should take the matter to international court – now the ICJ, and “let the ICJ tell us that it is no good, but we regard it as totally good and valid…”

He said that the British did not want to go on an equitable basis, which was Guatemala’s demand, but it wanted the case to be heard strictly on the basis of law, and while Guatemala has long resisted that proposal, what Elrington describes as “perhaps the greatest historical breakthrough” occurred in 2008, when Guatemala agreed to have the matter heard at the ICJ strictly on the basis of law.

Elrington raised the ire of some persons in the audience when he went further to say that allowing the court to adjudicate on the matter would mean that Belize is going to be given what international law recognizes as its entitlement, as it is a question of being told in clear and unmistakable language what is yours and what is not yours.

“We know what is ours,” an audience member retorted.

Elrington argued that, “We need to go to the ICJ because that’s a precondition for us to be able to demarcate our land boundary, as well as our sea boundaries. At present, we are a nation without defined and demarcated boundaries, and the only issue remaining is for us to get a pronouncement on the boundaries…”

He said that the question of whether Belize’s boundary is valid or not is the issue at the core.

“When this matter goes to the ICJ, I won’t be there to argue it. We have expert lawyers,” he said, speaking of international lawyers who have been on the case for years.

Elrington insists that, “We don’t have an option…”

He said that every Belize Foreign Minister has held the view that the ICJ is the only way to resolve the dispute; and not only is there consensus between officialdom in Belize and Guatemala; everyone he speaks with on the international scene has the same view, Elrington claimed.

A question was thrown from the floor: “If we lose?”

Elrington insisted that the court would simply affirm what Belize’s rights and entitlements are under law – that Belize is not going to lose anything.

He went furthermore to contend that Belize cannot properly enforce its laws without defined and demarcated boundaries.

“If you don’t have boundaries, you don’t have a leg to stand up on…” he claimed.

Of note, though, is the assertion made earlier by Talamas, that under the confidence building measures which the parties signed under the OAS, the territory to the east of the western border is administered by Belize “and the laws of Belize apply…” and the area to the west is administered by Guatemala “and the laws of Guatemala apply…”

In fact, under those same measures, more than 300 Guatemalan squatters have been relocated, at the expense of the OAS, back to their country of origin. Talamas reported that in 2004/2005, 186 citizens were relocated from Nueva Juda to Guatemala, and in 2007/2008, they resettled more than 100 Guatemalans from Santa Rosa community to their country of origin.

The OAS office established on the border between Benque Viejo del Carmen and Melchor de Menchos has also provided humanitarian assistance, and training for more than 1,000 Belizean youth from border communities.

During the peace forum, they displayed their musical talents with original compositions performed between speeches and presentations delivered by officials of the OAS, Belize and Guatemala.

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