Letters — 18 July 2018
Quo Vadis, Belice?

Dear Editor,

All is not well in The Jewel. Inflation fueled by crushing and ever increasing taxation is driving more of us into poverty on a daily basis. Corruption at all levels is the order of the day. Crime of all types including an unprecedented number of homicides and home invasions overwhelms us like a runaway train. This has been especially true since the legalization of cannabis, as was the case in Jamaica until they repealed the law. We suffer under senseless draconian Napoleonic gun laws under which the criminals find it easier to bear arms than the law-abiding citizen, yet this has utterly failed to reduce the killings. We live in a police state replete with police brutality. Motorists are constantly subjected to countless police checkpoints and passengers are remanded to prison for simply being in a vehicle near to which some controlled drugs (pills) were found, as was the case in Spanish Lookout a few days ago. Is there any wonder that our justice system has such a dismal conviction rate? The economy is faltering and our foreign reserves are all but depleted.

As if this was not bad enough our friendly neighbor to the West, with the acquiescence of our Government, has erased our Southern border, annexed our portion of the Sarstoon River including the Sarstoon Island, and replaced our hitherto Internationally recognized border from the Gracias á Dios Falls to the Mexican frontier at Blue Creek  with an imaginary “adjacency line.” Even Google has recently replaced the solid frontier line with a dotted line which signifies divisions within a single country (Guatemala), but brace yourself, compadre, for worse is yet to come. We are now being railroaded by means of an eight million dollars brainwashing campaign, funded by our government and “The Friends of Belize” to play a game of Russian roulette on Wednesday, 10th April, 2019 with The Jewel at the business end of the barrel.

Their argument is that we now have a once in a lifetime opportunity to get the Guatemalan monkey off our back as they have finally (stupidly) agreed to take the territorial dispute to the ICJ for a decision on strictly legal grounds since Guatemala had always previously refused to go to the ICJ stating that they would only be prepared to adjudicate on an ex aequo et bono basis (non-legal) which was a tacit admission that they did not believe that their claim would withstand legal scrutiny. Since it is impossible for us to lose on strictly legal grounds we would be crazy not to vote “Yes” in the upcoming referendum. Furthermore if we vote “No” all our friends and the rest of the world will turn against us and Guatemala will most likely use its military superiority to invade and take by force her portion if not all of The Jewel. Now to those of you who might discuss the whole sordid affair and determine not to participate in the imminent referendum, as most Guatemalans did in theirs, such a course of action would be ill advised as our government at the request of our friendly neighbor Guatemala has changed our referendum law so that a simple majority decides, and even worse, there is no validity threshold. In other words if only three persons vote, two “Yes” and one “No,” we will still be obliged to go to the ICJ.

Now let us assume that a “Yes” vote prevails as the powers that be desire. The question the ICJ will be asked to resolve is Article Two of the signed agreement with Guatemala which states: “The Parties request the Court to determine in accordance with applicable rules of international law as specified in Article 38(1) of the Statute of the Court any and all legal claims of Guatemala against Belize to land and insular territories and to any maritime areas pertaining to these territories, to declare the rights therein of both Parties, and to determine the boundaries between their respective territories and areas.”

We must therefore begin by considering what exactly is it that Guatemala claims and what are their legal arguments supporting this claim. I have reproduced below an excerpt from the legal opinion on the Guatemalan Claim written by the legal luminaries in 2001 which explains this very well. Please also refer to a map of the region at the time the Central American Federation existed which may help to clarify Guatemala’s position.

“That claim (so Guatemala contends) is based on the title which Spain possessed to the whole area of present Belize at the time when Guatemala became independent in 1821and on Guatemala’s succession to that title by operation of the doctrine of uti possidetis. Guatemala maintains that the 1859 Convention, which recognized the boundaries and thereby the extent of British Honduras, was a cession of territory dependent upon the performance by Britain of a provision in that Convention (Article VII) to participate in the construction of a cart road connecting Guatemala City to the Atlantic. Guatemala asserts that, as Britain did not meet its obligations under that provision, Guatemala was entitled to denounce the Convention, which it did, and the territory which Guatemala had thereby acknowledged as being the territory of British Honduras thereupon reverted to Guatemala.

In summary, Guatemala’s position involves the following assertions:

(i) the area of Belize was originally included within the domains of Spain;

(ii) within those domains, Belize formed part of the Province of Verapaz within the Captaincy-General of Guatemala;

(iii) during that period, extending until the acquisition of independence in 1821 by the United Provinces of Central America (which included Guatemala), the only rights that Britain acquired in the area were those granted by the Anglo-Spanish

Treaties of 1783 and 1786. Those rights were limited to the area north of the Sibun River and were restricted in their scope;

(iv) upon the acquisition of independence the United Provinces of Central America, and subsequently Guatemala, succeeded to the sovereignty of Spain by operation of the principle of uti possidetis juris, subject to the treaty rights of Britain;

(v) the limitations in the Treaties precluded Britain from acquiring sovereignty over any part of Belize;

(vi) therefore the 1859 Convention between Britain and Guatemala operated as a cession of territory from Guatemala to Britain and not as a treaty establishing a boundary between the two territories;

(vii) the 1859 Convention contains a provision (Article VII) for the construction of a cart road from Guatemala City to the nearest point on the Guatemalan coast, to which Britain was required to contribute;

(viii) Britain’s non-performance of its obligations under this Article entitled Guatemala unilaterally to terminate this Convention;

(ix) Guatemala has done so, the treaty is at an end and, as a result, the cession of the territory of Belize is no longer operative and it has reverted to Guatemala.”

The conclusion of the legal minds who wrote the opinion is that Guatemala’s contention to have unilaterally ended the 1859 treaty as a consequence of the non-performance of Britain’s obligations under Article VII is legally unsound. Nonetheless the fact is that the contested area of Belize was formally a part of The Province of Verapaz, the remainder of Verapaz being the area that is now Guatemala (See map). Now Guatemala inherited  Verapaz from Spain by operation of the principle of uti possidetis juris, which is a legal argument that is even being used today in the settlement of territorial disputes at the ICJ. Furthermore even Britain must have acknowledged this in 1859; why else would they have included Article VII in the 1859 treaty and subsequently offered Guatemala financial compensation?

The real truth is that Guatemala was deceived by the British with false promises given to them in Article VII of the border convention into signing away their claim to the part of Verapas occupied by the then British Honduras of 1859. It might very well be argued by Guatemala at the ICJ that the British were complicit in obtaining territory by deception which may well constitute one of their any and all legal arguments. Now the problem here is that any compensation due Guatemala should rightly be a British obligation and should never have been permitted to devolve on Belize. After their century long exploitation of Belize’s natural resources they should have at least done the honorable thing and resolve their obligation to Guatemala.

So then, if the ICJ now determines that Guatemala should be compensated for this British perfidy, under the power to determine the true boundaries between the two countries, given them by the said agreement, and especially since our Government has, in concert  with Guatemala, declared that no clearly defined borders exist between the two states, they will then duly proceed to compensate Guatemala by simply setting the real border, giving the portion of Belize they see fit as reparation to Guatemala for the harm inflicted on them by the British.

The problem here, Jack, is the wording of what the ICJ will be asked to adjudicate. The litigation risk is just too great to for us play this Russian roulette game with The Jewel. One thing is for sure, the British despite their many foibles were never crazy enough to declare that Belize has no clearly defined borders with Guatemala and then act accordingly, nor were they ever willing to have the ICJ decide on anything other than the validity of the 1859 border convention. This OAS-drafted agreement stacked the deck so much in favor of Guatemala (shades of the Webster Proposals and the Heads of Agreement) that they ardently agreed to take it to the ICJ. Do not make the lethal mistake of underestimating the legal acumen of Guatemala and geo-political power of its formidable friends, or a fatal dismemberment of The Jewel will inexorably transpire.

Nonetheless, let us consider for the sake of analysis that we do go to the ICJ and secure a win against Guatemala. They would more than likely say that their constitution requires another plebiscite before they can accept the ICJ ruling. The problem here is that even if by some miracle the present Guatemalan Government accepts an ICJ ruling in favor of Belize, as long as their constitution defines Belize as Guatemalan territory, succeeding governments will be forced to reassert the claim. The main shortcoming of the International Court of Justice is that they do not enforce their Judgments. It is therefore incumbent on the honesty, sincerity and integrity of the parties who go before them to abide by whatever judgments are made. When there is such a disparity in power as exists between Belize and Guatemala, the stronger, Guatemala in our case, always has the advantage if it decides to reject the ICJ’s ruling. Some may argue that the Security Council arm of the UN will force Guatemala to abide by the ICJ ruling. I can immediately name three members of that powerful organ of the UN who in all probability would not support our cause. These are the USA, the UK and China. Do you honestly believe that given the power including veto, of the friends Guatemala has batting for her that we would receive a favorable judgment against Guatemala?

Finally we will now consider the ramifications of a “no” vote, as many Belizeans presently consider being the best option we may have. So what will happen if we refuse to place our country in the jaws of our friendly neighbor?  In my opinion nothing worse than what is happening right now. As the Guatemalan population in Peten continues to explode we will continue to have increasing large illegal incursions across the border. Guatemala will continue to saber rattle and threaten us with a military takeover, but going to the ICJ with this question as our Government advocates will most likely result in a Guatemalan takeover without costing them a drop of blood.

The bottom line is that we are ultimately responsible for own defense, both militarily and diplomatically. Going to the ICJ may still be a viable option, but with a different question, the validity of the 1859 border treaty for example. Meanwhile we should clear our border with Guatemala and place markers at regular intervals, offer land to Belizeans who might want to settle along the perimeter. Our military needs to be strengthened, including our Coast Guard.   Perhaps the “Friends of Belize” or patriotic Belizeans living abroad can assist. Realistically we may never be strong enough to defeat Guatemala in an outright war. We therefore need to lobby for friends who may be willing to come to our assistance if Guatemala should try anything. Perhaps Mexico, who went to war with them over Chiapas, or Cuba, who probably still have a score to settle with them for their role in the Bay of Pigs invasion may fit the bill. A strong military might provide a deterrent to their aggression and could delay a hostile Guatemalan military incursion until such friends as we may have can come to our assistance. We need to solicit international support against Guatemalan aggression and sensitize the world to their hostile behavior.

Last but far from being least, we need to select patriotic leaders with the intestinal fortitude to confront Guatemalan aggression and the diplomatic acumen to effectively represent the best interests of our country. May God preserve The Jewel.

Sidley Leslie

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Deshawn Swasey

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