General — 11 November 2017 — by Rowland A. Parks
Senate showdown looms over the PUP’s proposal to amend the Maritime Areas Act

“I’m hoping that they [the UDP] will do the right thing.” – Senator Eamon Courtenay

BELIZE CITY, Wed. Nov. 8, 2017–The next showdown between Prime Minister Dean Barrow’s United Democratic Party (UDP) government and the Opposition People’s United Party (PUP) is expected to take place at the next meeting of the Senate, when the PUP will be allowed to introduce a motion to amend the Maritime Areas Act.

If this actually happens, Belize will then be able to claim its 12 nautical miles of sea in the south, instead of the 3 nautical miles the Maritime Areas Act makes provision for.

In 1992, the Belize parliament passed into law the Maritime Areas Act which delimited the sea boundary of Belize in the south to 3 miles, instead of the 12 miles Belize was entitled to claim under current international law.

The purpose of the Maritime Areas Act was to enhance the negotiating process between Belize and the Republic of Guatemala, which was led at the time by President Jorge Antonio Serrano Elias.

Section (3) (a) of the act spells out clearly its purpose: “For the avoidance of doubt it is hereby declared that the purpose of the limitation of the territorial sea from the mouth of Sarstoon River to Ranguana Caye as described in sub-section (2) above, is to provide a framework for the negotiation of a definitive agreement on territorial differences with the Republic of Guatemala.”

Negotiations with Guatemala to resolve its territorial claim to Belize collapsed, but the Maritime Areas Act remained on the law books of Belize through successive administrations of the People’s United Party (PUP) and the United Democratic Party (UDP).

The call to amend the Maritime Areas Act first came in April 2016 from a ranking authority on the Guatemalan claim, the former PUP Minister and Ambassador, Dr. Assad Shoman, when he addressed a Belize National Teachers Union rally in Benque Viejo, Cayo.
Dr. Shoman characterized the section of the Maritime Areas Act which allows for a 3-mile sea limit as “obsolete,” because we signed a special agreement to take the matter to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Dr. Shoman told the BNTU rally, “… once we signed the special agreement in 2008, what it says is we don’t want to negotiate anymore — this is going to court. We will not negotiate and say that we will give this little piece or that little piece — no piece at all. We will not negotiate the claim anymore. We are going to take it to court. So, why is that Maritime Areas Act still there, that part of it? If we limit ourselves — people from the south especially [says the Maritime Areas Act] — if we limit ourselves to 3 miles so that we could negotiate the rest …”

“We are now saying that we will not negotiate, no. Everything is going to court. Well then, we have to proclaim the full 12 miles for the whole of Belize, because that section of the Maritime Areas Act is obsolete — it’s out of date. It’s irrelevant, and what is worse, it is used by Guatemala to confuse people out there and let them think that we already agreed to stay at 3 miles.

“You see what I am saying? So we have to change that Act. That’s my second recommendation to you, that the Maritime Areas Act be amended.”

Yesterday, Tuesday, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hon. Wilfred “Sedi” Elrington, commented to reporters about the PUP’s proposal to amend the Maritime Areas Act.

“The propensity, or the tendency for people to want to grandstand on matters like this, is very strong. Grandstanding will only hurt you. It doesn’t help a society to grandstand on issues like these, and the grandstanders need to be put to task. Well, when it was your turn, why did you not deal with it?” Minister Elrington stated.

Elrington added, “When I heard that an initiative was going to be made to bring the matter in the Senate, to have it amended, I caused for my staff to look for the original advice, because I was told that it was based on a legal advice. I had never seen the legal advice, and no legal advice was in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“We had to inquire about its existence and a copy was furnished to our office last week by Ambassador Assad Shoman. It turned out that that legal advice was given to the government from about 2001, 2002.

“Now, I cannot for the life of me understand why it was that nobody did anything about it, because from 2001 — the People’s United Party Government was in office from 1998 to 2008. They had the information. I am told that Mr. Courtenay was one time a foreign minister. He had the information. Said Musa had that information. Why was it not dealt with between 1998 and 2008?”

PUP Senator Eamon Courtenay fired back at Foreign Minister Elrington.

“First of all, he accused us of grandstanding. I will go on record to accuse him of one, dereliction of duty; secondly, ignorance of history; thirdly, a lack of understanding of the intricacies of this process,” Senator Courtenay responded.

He continued: “The Belizean people must understand that the Maritime Areas Act was passed in order to try to arrive at a negotiated settlement of this dispute. It included in it, where we did not claim all our territorial seas and exclusive economic zone from the Sarstoon to Ranguana, to allow an agreement, if possible, to be reached and approved by the people.

“It is from then, 1991, that the legal advisors said, if no negotiated settlement is achieved, you need to make the declaration of your territorial rights and exclusive economic zone.”

Senator Courtenay also pointed out, “What Mr. Elrington apparently either does not understand, or he understands it and is misleading the Belizean people, is when it is that Belize and Guatemala agreed that no negotiated settlement was possible. That was in December 2008, when Wilfred Peter Elrington, as Foreign Minister of Belize, signed the Special Agreement saying we should go to court.

“The People’s United Party was not in Government in 2008, when the decision was taken by the parties that the matter would go to court, if the people approved it in a referendum. And therefore, the condition for the removal of the provision in the Maritime Areas Act didn’t come up until he signed that agreement.”

“Since 2008, just under 9 years ago, Mr. Elrington had a duty and an obligation to ensure consistent legal advice we received, that the Maritime Areas Act be amended. He has not done it. He has failed to discharge his duty,” Courtenay said.

When he was asked if the Government side would support the Opposition motion, Hon. Elrington replied, “No, actually, the Senate is late. If you listened to a program which I did on KREM, earlier this year, you would have seen that I had advised KREM that in fact, Cabinet had taken a decision to deal with the matter. We had taken a decision to deal with the matter, but dealing with these matters, one has to be very conscious of the time and the circumstances because of the effect that it can have.”

“So, basically, the Government of Belize, the Cabinet, had taken a decision to deal with it legislatively as early as April, or maybe before that,” Elrington added.

Courtenay, who was standing within earshot of the interview Elrington was giving to reporters, said, “The People’s United Party has proposed the amendment, and proposed it in the Senate, and I listen to him just now finding all kinds of excuses as to why his party may not support. Is that a nationalistic decision? Is that in the interest of Belize — to be political on a national issue?

“It needs to be dealt with. It should have been dealt with a long time ago. What reason, what rational basis can be advanced by the UDP for not voting in favor? It can only be that because PUP is proposing it, they will oppose. That can only be the basis. I am assuming that they will be more mature than that. I’m assuming that they will be more patriotic than that. I’m hoping that they will do the right thing.”

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