The interim injunction the Chief Justice placed on the referendum which was to be held to decide if Belize would go with Guatemala to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to settle that country’s longstanding claim to Belize’s territory, provoked an interesting intervention from foreign places.
The countries, Belize and Guatemala, had signed a Special Agreement in 2008, which if agreed to by the people in both countries, would send the dispute to the ICJ for final resolution. Guatemala would go to referendum in 2018, and the people who voted declared, emphatically, that they were eager to go to the ICJ. Only 27% of their people showed up for the referendum, and of those that voted an overwhelming 96% said the ICJ was the way to go.
It was smooth sailing in Guatemala almost from the get go. The Prime Minister of Belize had opined that they might have difficulties. He told Ms. Adele Ramos (Amandala, February 24, 2009) that the compromis (Special Agreement) would first be reviewed by a committee of Guatemala’s Congress, after which “it goes to the plenary of Congress, and a decision is expected within 45 days.” The Prime Minister told Ms. Ramos that he expected the matter to go through the committee fairly easily, but not so easily through the plenary session. “That’s where the big debate happens,” the Prime Minister told Ramos, and added that the government (of Belize) would wait to see what happens in the Guatemalan Congress before it makes any move to table it (the Special Agreement) at the National Assembly.
In 2010, the Guatemalan Congress ratified the Special Agreement, but the country did not proceed to negotiate a date for the referendum with Belize (the countries had agreed to hold their separate referendums on the same day). Guatemala insisted that Belize change the 60% threshold in its referendum law because, they said, they didn’t want to invest a lot of money in the process only to have the results in Belize nullified by poor voter turnout. Belize complied. Guatemala was also allowed to hold its referendum separately because, it is claimed, they wanted it to coincide with general elections in that country.
It has not been smooth sailing in Belize. The person who signed the Special Agreement on our behalf, Foreign Minister Wilfred Elrington, embarked on a campaign to strike fear in the hearts of Belizeans if they didn’t return a YES vote when the referendum was called. Belize’s leaders have offered that Guatemala decided to go to the ICJ because they are tired of being a pariah nation in the world because of their claim on Belize. In sharp contradiction to that, the Foreign Minister offered that Belize must go to the ICJ because Guatemala might become aggressive if we didn’t.
The campaign of fear did not have the desired results. A number of opinion polls showed Belizeans developing a strong resistance to the ICJ process.
It is not impossible that from very early on the proponents of the Special Agreement realized that it was no easy sell to get us to agree to have a court (the ICJ) decide on any and all the legal claims Guatemala says it has on ALL the territory of Belize.
This would explain the Belize government making no special accommodations for Belizeans living abroad to participate in the referendum process; the Belize government being content with failures at the Vital Statistics Department that has led to many Belizeans being denied voting rights; the Belize government being content with recently nationalized Guatemalans participating in the process; the Belize government never considering that in this particular referendum the participation of Commonwealth citizens who are just here for a period, and economic citizens, might not be appropriate; and the Belize government never giving those against going to the ICJ and neutral parties any money out of the millions that it got from local coffers and the Friends of Belize to carry out an education campaign.
In short, the Belize government trampled our democracy in its desperation to get a YES vote, in a hurry. This trampling on democracy isn’t strange; Belize’s governments have been doing that for years. It seemed the government would get that YES vote, in a hurry, up to a few days before the referendum appointment, set for April 10, 2019, when it ran into the legal snag in the courts.
The ink hadn’t dried on the court’s announcement on April 3 that there was cause for a slight delay, a postponement of the referendum, when the country’s leader took the stage to decry the court’s decision. His criticism was defiant. From beginning to end of his diatribe he was a warrior spoiling for battle, except for a momentary lapse, in the middle of his address to the nation, when he worried about the total waste, “if this judgment were to mean the end of the road.”
The end of the road he saw wasn’t the end of the referendum; what he saw was the end of his, and his Foreign Minister’s, ambitions to see it across the finish line, with an affirmative vote.
The Prime Minister, a professional lawyer, knows that the process leading up to the referendum in this country has not been as clear as day. There is a strong belief that if the Constitutionalists so choose, they could tie up the process in the courts for a long, long time, for such a long time that the Prime Minister won’t be the presiding officer when Belizeans go to the polls.
Some Friends of Belize saw the same thing the Prime Minister saw, and this provoked their interesting intervention. On April 11, the EU, the UK, and the USA announced that they had “taken note of the postponement”, and that they “maintain(ed) their support in favour of the referendum and hope that it can take place as soon as possible.” Their announcement said “the referendum process is the [our emphasis] route towards a peaceful dispute resolution…” and it concluded, saying that it was their hope “the legal obstacles preventing the referendum…can be resolved in accordance with Belize’s legal procedures.”
These Friends of Belize have every right to be concerned because they have invested in the process, and though we can never forget the Webster’s Proposals and the Heads of Agreement, there’s a lot of good going on between our country and theirs. But we might have preferred that they, instead of plugging for an early referendum and coercing us into a yes vote, had called on the government to make sure it is a “free and democratic process”, as their statement also called for.
There are a number of opinions about the reason or reasons behind the Prime Minister’s insistence on getting it done now, but if we believe our government implicitly, the haste might be all to do with who challenged whom to go to the ICJ.
A number of our leaders who have been involved with the process leading up to our signing the Special Agreement to go to the ICJ with Guatemala, a list that definitely includes one former foreign minister, Dr. Assad Shoman, insist that we, Belize, are the ones who pushed for adjudication at the ICJ.
Dr. Shoman’s story on this matter is well-documented. In his “Pocket Guide to the Referendum on the ICJ”, he tackles an accusation by some, that our government “is acting in appeasement to foreign interests.” Dr. Shoman writes: “The truth is just the opposite. It was Belize that took the initiative from as early as 2002 and brought international pressure to bear on Guatemala to accept a process that would eventually lead us to the ICJ. WE pushed for it, not Guatemala nor Britain nor any ‘foreign interests’”.
If that is the absolute truth, then our government led Guatemala to the ICJ. But we aren’t ready yet.