Headline — 23 October 2012 — by Adele Ramos

Belize and Guatemala today entered a new phase in their push to have their territorial differendum, with a history dating back nearly 160 years, settled at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), with Guatemala Foreign Minister Harold Caballeros declaring the start of a US$14 million public education campaign in that country and urging Guatemalans to look to the ICJ for a final resolution to the territorial conflict between the countries.

“Now begins the work to sensitize the entire Guatemalan population that the ICJ can give a decision that would put an end to this conflict. To that we are committed,” Caballeros said in a short statement to the press, “…from today, I call on all Guatemalans to seek to imbue ourselves, find out, obtain knowledge as to what this differendum has been about and how it can be resolved.”

Whereas Guatemala today announced the start of its public education campaign, the public education campaign in Belize is not set to begin until January 2013.

Belize Foreign Minister Wilfred “Sedi” Elrington, who led a three-member delegation at today’s meeting held in Guatemala City, declared at a press briefing that “Belize is a country that believes in a rule of law and that also believes very passionately that disputes should be settled legally.”

The Belizean government is also supporting a “yes” vote in a referendum to be held on the same day as Guatemala’s—Sunday, October 6, 2013.

Ambassador Lisa Shoman, a former Minister of Foreign Affairs who represents the Opposition People’s United Party in the talks, said after today’s meetings that it’s been almost 12 years since the process began, at the level of the Organization of American States (OAS), to have the dispute resolved.

She said that “…the effort here is important, and I feel confident that we will be able to raise those funds that are needed for the education campaign.”

“Belize’s struggle with the unfounded Guatemalan claim,” Shoman added, “is one of the biggest issues we face as Belizeans. I think if there is one thing we all agree, we can’t ignore it and hope it will go away.”

She said that they have committed to a bipartisan approach and they intend to be active in the national campaign, “to hit the ground and hit the ground running.”

Today, the parties also launched their formal pitch to the international community, and more specifically a group of countries dubbed “The Group of Friends” to help provide the US$50.5 million they estimate would be needed for the entire public education campaign and referendum process.

Guatemala has budgeted US$32 million for referendum day, and they have said that they will foot that bill but require international assistance to finance US$14 million required for the public campaign.

On the much smaller Belize side, the budget calls for US$2 million for voter mobilization and registration and US$0.5 mil for legal fees and research, with the total earmarked for both the public education and referendum processes being US$4.5 million. A document presented today by the Belize delegation said that the budget is to be partly funded by the Government of Belize, especially the start-up phase, but it also calls for non-reimbursable contributions from the international community.

Highlighting the need for a “peaceful resolution” of the territorial differendum, Elrington told the press today that this year the entire international community is advocating resolution of such conflicts via the ICJ. He said that both countries made a pitch this morning to the international community to assist with the process, and from their response, it seems “they are on the right track.”

Elrington went on to say that they will see to it that nothing happens to prevent them from going ahead with the process leading up to referendum day.

OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza, who also attended the Guatemala meeting, reaffirmed in his statement today the OAS’s continued participation in the process.

Accompanying the OAS Secretary-General to the Guatemala meeting were key officials from the OAS Secretariat of Political Affairs, including OAS Senior Political Advisor Raul Lago, who is also the Special Representative of the OAS Secretary General for Belize and Guatemala; Magdalena Talamas – Chief of the Fund for Peace; and Kevis Casas – Secretary for Political Affairs at the OAS.

Following the meetings with the Group of Friends and the Belize and Guatemala officials, the OAS head was also set to meet with Guatemala president Otto Pérez Molina to discuss the territorial differendum and the next general assembly of the OAS, scheduled to be held in Antigua, Guatemala next June, said a report posted on the Guatemala president’s website.

Meanwhile, the OAS has announced that Insulza would meet on Tuesday, October 23, with Prime Minister Dean Oliver Barrow, here in Belize.

“The leader of the hemispheric organization will also hold meetings with the Minister of Foreign Affairs – Wilfred Elrington, the Minister of National Security – John Saldivar and the leader of the Opposition – Francis Fonseca, among other authorities,” said an OAS press release.

In reporting on today’s meeting, the OAS said in a separate statement that: “…the two foreign ministers reported on the status of the talks held between Belize-Guatemala to address its centennial territorial dispute, and they requested support from the international community to refer the dispute to the International Court of Justice, once referenda on the issue are held in both countries on October 2013. This diplomatic process has the political and technical support of the OAS.”

Although the ICJ referendum was the central topic of discussion today, the recent killing of Francisco Quim Cab (Yat) of Guatemala, who came to Belize illegally and who reportedly attacked a Belize Defence Force officer with a machete and did not comply with six warning shots to desist, was also addressed—particularly the question of the Belize Government paying compensation to his family amid reported threats from Guatemala to shut down its border with Belize and to expel Belize’s Ambassador resident in Guatemala, Alfredo Martinez, also a part of today’s delegation.

Foreign Affairs Minister Elrington said that Caballeros had subsequently contacted him to say that they had made no such threats against Belize—that their only concern was that such killings, the third reported for 2012, should stop.

The Belize Justice Coalition, a newly formed advocacy group claiming membership from 30 organizations, last week issued a statement saying “no compensation” should be awarded to persons guilty of illegal incursions into Belize and that Minister Elrington should resign or be removed.

There have been media reports that $10,000 would be paid in compensation; but when asked by KREM News today, Elrington said that he does not know the ‘quantum’ to be paid, but he did confirm that Cabinet had agreed that the Belize government will have to pay something to Yat’s family, which he described as “totally indigent.” The breadwinner is dead and Belize thought it was a good pledge, Elrington added.

The Guatemala Foreign Minister said today that they are doing their part. When we asked for elaboration on this point, to clarify what Guatemala has been doing to help discourage the incursions into Belizean territory and particularly the illegal activities inside its protected areas, Elrington said that they have tried to advise their people that they can’t continue to do the things they have been doing.

Elrington said that they have furthermore indicated that they may have already identified funds through Europeans to come up with projects for those people in the border areas who are principally responsible for the illegal activities, because they understand that their actions are motivated by their desire for survival.

If projects could be initiated along the border area, they would not have to come across into Belize, Elrington indicated.

“We have had incidents, they are public, all of you know of them, but we are generating a mechanism that could guarantee that that will not continue to reoccur,” Caballeros told the media.

Indications from both sides are that Belize and Guatemala will present formal proposals to address escalating border tensions, because they are “very serious about doing something” to quell them.

(Amandala thanks KREM News editor Marisol Amaya for her reporting on the Guatemala meeting.)

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