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ICJ sets time limits in Belize v Honduras case

HighlightsICJ sets time limits in Belize v Honduras case

Photo: H.E. Assad Shoman

May 2, 2023, is the deadline that has been set by the court for Belize to submit its Memorial to the ICJ in the case against Honduras to finally determine sovereignty over the Sapodilla Cayes.

by Marco Lopez

BELIZE CITY, Wed. Feb. 8, 2023

On February 2, 2023, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued an order fixing time limits for the filing of written pleadings from Belize and Honduras in the case regarding the sovereignty of the Sapodilla Cayes – a marine-protected area located in the southernmost region of Belize’s marine space. Belize was given 4 months to file its Memorial in the case. Belize’s agent, H.E. Assad Shoman, had requested just three months for the preparation of the document, and proposed that Honduras be granted four months. 

The agent representative for Honduras, Julio Antonio Rendon Barnica, had requested a full 12 months to be granted to both parties for the preparation of the written pleadings: the Memorial from Belize and Counter-Memorial from Honduras. The ICJ, however, gave Honduras until December 4, 2023—seven months from Belize’s submission – to file its counter-memorial in the case. 

The order from the ICJ states that the Government of Belize requested the short time limit in view of the “narrow scope of the case which was limited to the question of sovereignty over a small set of cayes and did not involve any issues of maritime delimitation, and in light of the fact that the Parties were familiar with the legal, factual and historical aspects of the case.” 

The agent for Honduras said, however, “that his government needed sufficient time to undertake its own research into the legal, factual, and historical aspects of the case.” 

Notably, Belize’s agent indicated to the court that they were still “willing and ready” to submit the Counter-Memorial within the three months requested. 

Time has been of the essence for Belize in this case since its decision to file the action at the ICJ. This is following failed attempts to resolve the issue regarding the sovereignty over the Sapodilla Cayes with Honduras by diplomatic means. The resolution of the Sapodilla Cayes issue is important to Belize’s case on Guatemala’s Territorial, Insular and Maritime Claim, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hon. Eamon Courtenay explained at an October 2022 Senate meeting. At that meeting, Belize ratified the Pact of Bogota – the American Treaty for Pacific Settlement – in order to take Honduras’ unresolved claim to the Sapodilla Cayes to the ICJ. 

Courtenay, at the time, explained, “If, as we believe is likely, Honduras applies to intervene in the case now before the court, it is likely to affect the Belize-Guatemala case. Once the ICJ becomes aware of a claim by Honduras to the Sapodillas, there is a significant risk that the court would not delimit the Maritime Areas that appertain to the Sapodillas, thereby leaving unresolved a large part of our maritime entitlement. Indeed, the ICJ may decide not to pronounce on sovereignty over the Sapodillas as well, even as Belize and Guatemala. This would mean that sovereignty over a very important part of our sovereign domain, the Sapodillas and the Maritime Areas pertaining to it, would remain unresolved.”

The Pact of Bogota was ratified on that day, and by November 16, 2022, Belize initiated proceedings to address Honduras’ claim at the ICJ. A release from the Government of Belize on February 6, 2023 states that “H.E. Ambassador Assad Shoman has advised the Registrar that Belize intends to file its Memorial on or before the deadline set by the Court.”

The current PUP administration had made two recorded attempts, by means of letters sent from the Foreign Affairs Office and an in-person meeting between Minister Eamon Courtenay and his counterpart Foreign Minister of Honduras, Eduardo Enrique Reina, to resolve the matter before resorting to ICJ adjudication. The meeting was held in April 2022 in Texas between the two, which followed a May 2022 letter, and there was another letter—by all indications the last of such correspondence – on September 2022. 

By October, Belize finally signed the Pact of Bogota and in November filed its case at the ICJ. 

Belize claimed uninterrupted peaceful possession of the Sapodilla Cayes for over 200 years until what Courtenay, in his September 2022 letter, considers the first protest issued by Honduras in 1981. In the letter, Courtenay urged the Honduran Foreign Minister to confirm that the country would not intervene in the Belize/ Guatemala case, and to confirm also Honduras’ willingness to “negotiate a solution to the dispute” based on “Honduras accepting Belize sovereignty and thus abandoning any claim of Honduran sovereignty.” 

In March 1981, Honduras issued a noted protesting article three of the Heads of Agreement which provided that Guatemala would have rights of use and enjoyment of the Sapodilla Cayes by a cession of the UK. 

“In this respect I, on behalf of the Government of Honduras, present a formal protest to your Excellency, because of the sovereignty which undoubtedly exists over the Sapodilla Cays, which from time immemorial, geographically, historically, and juridically have belonged and belong to the Republic of Honduras,” stated the note, which was written by then Honduran Minister of Foreign Affairs, Cesar Sierra.

In response to this note, the United Kingdom issued a statement that said, “Her Majesty’s Government has no doubt of the sovereignty over the Sapodilla Cays which are referred to in paragraph 3 of the Heads of Agreement, recently signed by the Government of the United Kingdom, Guatemala, and Belize.”

Article 10 of the Honduran Constitution still claims ownership over the Sapodilla Cayes. 

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