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Gut Reaction

BELIZE CITY, Wed., Jan. 9, 2019– Nothing stirs us up like the unfounded “claim” of Guatemala to our jewel. It’s a question of nationalism, of patriotism; a call to arms. Once the “claim” enters the public debate a tsunami of sorts begins to affect the body politic. In the midst of this storm emotions begin to rise, pushing rationality, its first victim, out the window. We need only to look back at the events surrounding the 17 Proposals of 1968, the Heads of Agreement of 1981, and the Maritime Areas Act of 1991 to know that Belizeans become alarmed whenever the “claim” raises its head.

When it comes to the “claim,” we vote gut, not party. So emotional is this issue in today’s debate that there are those who are calling into question the integrity and even patriotism of those Belizeans involved in the negotiation process and by extension the governments of both parties.

It’s hard to be rational amidst the storm of emotionalism with the claim being such a volatile issue. Many of us were raised in an atmosphere of, “we no wan no Guatemala”. The passion and emotion that surrounded that call, made us committed to our sovereign right over Belize. My own involvement in the objection to the Heads of Agreement and the Maritimes Areas Act came out of this kind of emotional charge. It was a call to arms that we defend what is “ours”.

But the current situation demands that we take a more rational approach to the “claim” in front of us. What are the rational overtones of this issue? We are being asked to submit our case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in order to arrive at an end to the unfounded “claim” of Guatemala over our territory. The past PUP government and the present UDP government have agreed to pursue the judicial process that if successful, will end the “claim” after numerous attempts at negotiation to get Guatemala to relinquish it. Going this way, however, requires the approval by the electorates of both Belize and Guatemala.

Belize today finds itself in a new time. Like many small nations in this region she is maneuvering to grapple with the volatile climate of the world economic crisis. As a member of CARICOM, as well as SICA, Belize is a part of a process to reorganize the paradigm that once characterized former colonial states in the region. The recent signing of the accord by Heads of State of Central American countries (SICA) in Honduras last week is another indication of this trend. Belize is the prime mover in the initiative to strengthen the link between Central America and the Caribbean in the next twenty-five years and is expected to adhere to the protocols and principles agreed upon. Therefore there is a pressure on Belize, as there is on Guatemala, to seek a solution to the “claim” which constitutes an obstacle to the principles of regional integration.

However, what concerns us most is the wording of Article 2 of the “compromis” and the finality of the Court in determining the definition of our territorial boundaries. To all Belizeans the territory of Belize is already clearly defined, backed up by the 1859 Treaty, enshrined in our Constitution, and recognized and respected by the international community. So to us a question of “territorial boundaries” seems moot, if not illogical. For this reason some feel that Belize should not go to the Court at all while others say go to the Court but remove the boundaries definition as part of the Court’s consideration. They say only ‘compensation’ should be in the equation for consideration. But implicit in the argument for “compensation” is the acceptance that there is some merit to the “claim”.

Also, to remove this question of “territorial definition” would render the whole process aborted. The whole reason why Guatemala is now prepared to go to Court is not for compensation, which she really should pursue with the British, but because she claims over half our territory. If our position is that we will discuss anything except “territorial definition” then there seems to be no use in going to the Court because the whole premise for Guatemala going to Court is based on “territorial definition”. Yet, the fact is, that the issue is one of law, international law, involving a territorial dispute between two countries — two neighbors who have moved away from violent conflict, tried negotiations which have failed and who now seek to settle the matter through legal means.

In order to reach finality to the “claim” the Court will be asked to adjudicate, “any legal claim of Guatemala against Belize relating to land and insular territories and to any maritime areas pertaining to these territories for final settlement and that it determines finally the boundaries of the respective territories and areas.” In order to do that both countries are required to accept the Court’s jurisdiction. There is a view that Belize cannot win at the ICJ without the corresponding risk of submitting her territory up for consideration. On the other hand, Belize’s  negotiators are saying, their legal experts have advised that because the 1859 Boundary Treaty is what  the Court will be required to examine and rule upon, there is no doubt that it will find in Belize’s favor of its validity and determine that the  boundaries are as described in that treaty. What is enshrined in the Constitution of Belize would be proven indeed to be the boundaries of Belize. Since Guatemala does not now recognize Belize’s boundaries, the Court will determine what Guatemala must do so.
That’s just the hard cold facts of this case.

According to Foreign Minister Sedi Elrington, Belize has an “air tight case”, a legal position shared by former PUP Foreign Minister, Lisa Shoman Belize’s negotiating team and internationally acclaimed legal advisers. They say this is comforting despite what seems to be the risk involved, “to take this albatross off our neck once and for all”. If this major step in the direction of the Court will accomplish that, then it’s worth the effort; to not move forward is to keep this albatross affixed to our necks, they say. That albatross is the new generation of Guatemalans who have political clout and who are continuing to push the claim. This is not a desirable situation to leave unresolved for our future generations, they assert.

But are the Guatemalans to walk away from the Court empty-handed? Since they stand to lose their substantial “claim” over the territory of Belize, is the Court required to appease them so that they don’t feel like complete losers in this case? The simple answer is no. This is a legal case where there is no compensation. Even in the maritime areas the judgment would have to be in accordance with the 1982 United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which will enable Belize to claim up to a median line, increasing its territorial sea from the 3-mile limit, up to the median line, say negotiators.

The Guatemalans may have come to a political solution of the “claim” a long time ago except for the fact that the “claim” is enshrined in their constitution. According to the former Chief Negotiator for Belize, the late Ambassador Fred Martinez, it would not only require a political decree but a constitutional amendment to solve the issue. He said the Guatemalans don’t have an established two-party system like the systems in Belize and the U. S. In their multi-party system politicians revolve through various parties that form their Congress. The only constant is their constitution. Dropping the “claim” is not the prerogative of any one party in government but will require a constitutional change, but to undertake that process is fraught with obstacles. Since their Constitutional Court rejects the validly of the 1859 Treaty it would require a superior court like the International Court of Justice (ICJ), to tell them to do so and they must comply.

According to Permanent Representative for Guatemala to the United Nations, Gert Rosenthal, changing their constitution is very difficult and getting a decree from the ICJ may be the easiest route to amend their constitution and end the “claim”. From his answers to Amandala’s Adele Ramos, he appears to accept the fact that the “claim” is archaic and unjust and that Belize’s present border should not be affected negatively by the Court’s decision.

What is surfacing once again as the public debate heats up is how little informed our people are about this issue surrounding this so-called “claim”. This is a shame considering the fact that this is the number one issue in our national consciousness running across political, religious, class and ethnic lines. Every time this issue raises its head, from the 17 Proposals till now, all the people have had  to go on are “winds of emotions’’. While there is an aspect of personal responsibility that rests on all of us to educate ourselves on this issue, there is an even larger responsibility on the government to put in place the mechanism to ensure that both current and historical information is available to the public about the “claim”. Not through impersonal websites alone but through an engagement with people at the community level.

Maybe after independence we should have included this information in the curriculum of our schools so that every Belizean who attended school in the last twenty-seven years would have been educated on the basic facts surrounding the “claim”, so that whenever a public debate on the “claim” comes up it is enriched by an informed public. It’s not too late to start now.

Even though our knee-jerk plans to give Belizeans a crash course on the “claim” through an extensive public education campaign is commendable, it is reminiscent of the short term, national consultative process that accompanied the release of the Ramphel/Richler Proposals seven years ago, in 2001. Since we are now talking about a process that will be here over at least the next three to five years, let’s hope that this new campaign goes beyond the referendum next year. Hopefully we will finally set up a full-time Secretariat or Commission with responsibility for updating Belizeans regularly on the status of the “claim”. This issue should not continue to remain clustered and buried in the halls of high-level diplomatic doublespeak. It’s time that we redefine this so-called “claim” into down-to-earth, easy to understand language so that the common people can participate in the conversation.

(First published in 2008—edited)

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