Headline — 13 October 2018 — by Rowland A. Parks
The ICJ Referendum question that no one in our informal survey knows
ICJ Referendum question: “Do you agree that any legal claim of Guatemala against Belize relating to land and insular territories and to any maritime areas pertaining to these territories should be submitted to the International Court of Justice for final settlement and that it determines finally the boundaries of the respective territories and areas of the parties?”

BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Oct. 11, 2018– In the next six months Belizeans will go to the polls to vote in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) referendum on whether or not to take the Guatemalan claim to the ICJ for a final settlement. Despite the government’s so-called ICJ Education Campaign on which millions of dollars are being spent, the message appears not to be reaching many Belizeans in Belize City.

Today we took to the streets to ask an important question: Do you know what the question is that will be asked in the ICJ referendum next year?

We asked about 50 persons from various walks of life that one question, and not even one person said that he or she knew exactly what the answer to our question was, even though most of them gave a “yes” or “no” response on whether we should go to the ICJ.

One academic with a doctorate degree, who said that he did not know what the question was until we shared it with him, remarked that the question is too complicated.

What most of those whom we asked shared with us, however, was that they are going to vote no to going to the ICJ.

The idea of taking the Guatemalan claim of Belize’s land and sea to the ICJ was brokered by the Organization of American States (OAS). They got Belize and Guatemala to sign a Special Agreement called a compromis in December 2008, shortly after the United Democratic Party government of Prime Minister Dean Barrow assumed power.

Initially, when the Special Agreement was signed, both countries had pledged to hold simultaneous referenda. That, however, did not happen and in 2015, the Special Agreement was amended at the Guatemalan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where Belize was represented by Foreign Minister Wilfred “Sedi” Elrington.

In its amended form (the public was never consulted over the matter), the Special Agreement allowed for both Guatemala and Belize to hold separate referenda.

In the case of Guatemala, they held their referendum on April 15 this year, and 95.88 percent of the 1,780.530 voters (24.97% of registered voters in Guatemala) who turned out, voted yes to taking the claim to the ICJ.

About two weeks after the Guatemalans voted in their ICJ referendum, Belize Prime Minister Dean Barrow returned from a meeting at the OAS in Washington DC, and announced on Monday, April 30, 2018, that Belize would hold its ICJ referendum on April 10, 2019.

The ICJ referendum education campaign, according to the Government of Belize’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was officially launched from as early as January 2013. According to a Ministry of Foreign Affairs online document, Ambassador James Murphy and Ambassador Stuart Leslie headed up the then Referendum Secretariat, which was later known as the Referendum Unit and now is formally known as the International Boundaries Unit.

 Guatemala too had an ICJ education campaign. In Guatemala’s case, members of its armed forces (Air Force, Navy and Army) did not assist in their education campaign and they were not allowed to participate in the voting. That is in stark contrast to Belize, where the government attempted to shore up its faltering education campaign (for which it has an 8-million-dollar budget) by parading leaders of the security forces (Belize Defence Force, Belize Police Department and Belize Coast Guard) on various media shows, where they embraced the government’s “yes” to the ICJ position.

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Deshawn Swasey

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