BELIZE CITY, Mon. May 9, 2016–On Saturday, the Opposition People’s United Party (PUP) held a National Party Council meeting at the Belize Elementary School Auditorium, where the approximately 300 delegates in attendance voted unanimously to pass a robust resolution, which demanded that the United Democratic Party (UDP) government of Prime Minister Dean Barrow rescind Statutory Instrument (SI) number 46 of 2016; otherwise, the PUP will travel to the Sarstoon.
In response to the Belize Territorial Volunteers’ (BTV) intentions to embark on a Sarstoon River trip on April 30 to celebrate the Anglo-Guatemalan 1859 border treaty, on Friday, April 29, the government passed into law the SI, which restricts Belizeans from traveling to the Sarstoon River for a period of one month, or until a protocol is agreed to with Guatemala on traversing the river.
The penalty for violating the SI is a fine of $2,000 or a prison sentence of one year, or both the fine and the prison sentence can be imposed.
Under the terms of the 1859 Treaty, the border between Belize and Guatemala was defined at the Sarstoon River, where the North Channel, including Sarstoon Island, has been designated, as Belize territory.
This afternoon, government responded to the PUP’s resolution in a press release captioned “Government announces limited access to Sarstoon.”
The government release states: “The Government of Belize (GOB) rejects the demand made by the People’s United Party for the immediate rescission of the Sarstoon Prohibition Regulation. At the time of passage, Government gave two rationales for the Regulation. One was to avoid the possibility of any harm coming to Belizeans going to the Sarstoon in organized numbers to make a political point, given that tensions had reached a fever pitch with Guatemala. The latter’s armed forces, especially its navy at the Sarstoon, were on a declared hair-trigger mobilization.
“The second reason for GOB’s position was to allow an opportunity for Belizean diplomacy to work. We felt confident that Guatemala would be obliged, under the confidence building measures, to change its stance and negotiate with us over the Sarstoon on the basis of respect for our rights.”
This afternoon, Amandala spoke to PUP Senator Eamon Courtenay, a former Foreign Minister of Belize who would represent the Opposition in the bi-lateral talks with Guatemala, if the government and the Opposition can find common ground on this pressing issue.
In response to Amandala’s question about the Opposition’s response to the government’s refusal of its demand to rescind the Sarstoon law, Senator Courtenay said, “I will say two things; one, we will file our challenge to this law because it is manifestly illegal, and two, we are going to the Sarstoon within the 30 days.” (That is, while the law is in effect.)
The Government release continues: “We believe that we have now obtained objective 2, and we expect formal bilateral negotiations in which we invite the Opposition to participate as equal partners, to start shortly.
“As a result, we also believe that the military tensions regarding the Sarstoon are no longer as explosive as they were when we passed the Regulation. But until the negotiations actually begin, we are not comfortable enough to conclude that all danger has been eliminated regarding large-scale, civilian political expeditions to the Sarstoon.”
“We are satisfied, though, that in view of the progress already made we can operationalize the stance we took at the press conference on Tuesday, May 3, 2016. Therefore, all non-political, legitimate Belizean civilian traffic into the restricted area will immediately be given lawful authority, under the Regulation, to proceed. The only requirement for this is that they check in at our Sarstoon Forward Operating Base (FOB) so that our military can confirm the legitimate nature of their use of the river,” the release further said.
The government release ends by saying, “GOB notes that the BDF not only remains permanently at the Sarstoon FOB, but continues to go upriver to effectuate the rotation at Cadenas, as was done last Tuesday. We also make clear that while there will be no immediate rescission of the Regulation, we do reserve the right to repeal it before it expires if no sufficient further progress is made with the bilateral Belize/Guatemala diplomatic engagement.”
The government has made the argument that by passing the Sarstoon law, it is expressly saying that it has sovereignty over its side of the Sarstoon.
That, however, does not quite square with the optics on the ground when it comes to what is happening on the Sarstoon River, where Guatemalan fisherfolk hold full sway and have been operating illegally on the Belize side of the river under the belligerent eyes of the Guatemalan military.
Not only that, but the Guatemalan Government has, on more than one occasion, maintained that it is exercising sovereignty over the entire Sarstoon River.
In 1940, Guatemala unilaterally declared that the 1859 Treaty was void, but it was not until about one year ago that it began to exercise sovereignty over the entire Sarstoon River, and has stated in one of its diplomatic notes that the Belize Defense Force gets permission from its military when they are accessing the river to do changeovers at the border observation post at Cardenas.