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Legal opinion commissioned by Bar Association indicates strength and weakness in Belize’s ICJ legal case

BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Mar. 7, 2019– The Belize Bar Association commissioned an independent legal opinion on the Belize/Guatemala territorial dispute from a ranking expert on International Law, Professor Stephen Vasciannie, CD, from the University of the West Indies.

Professor Vasciannie submitted his opinion on February 26 to the Secretary of the Belize Bar Association, Leslie Mendez.

Professor Vasciannie’s opinion on the Belize/Guatemalan claim highlights what he perceives as the strengths and weaknesses of both Guatemala’s case and Belize’s case at the ICJ.

The Belize Government’s ICJ education campaign is predicated on what they have described as an ironclad case, but Professor Vasciannie urges caution in some respects.

Professor Vasciannie’s pronouncement on the 1859 Anglo-Guatemalan treaty is of particular significance, because while Guatemala ended the treaty because they say the British had failed to honor Article 7, the boundary that the treaty defines remains.

Professor Vasciannie also included, in his legal opinion, various scenarios of possible arguments that could be presented by the Guatemalans at the ICJ, if the claim reaches the court.

The Court, Professor Vasciannie, wrote, will look at historical circumstances presented in the context of public international law.

If the claim goes to the ICJ, Professor Vasciannie says, Guatemala is likely to argue that it derived its claim to Belizean territory as a successor to the Spanish Empire when it obtained its independence in 1821, and that the British presence in Central America did not give title.

As far as the 1859 Treaty is concerned, Guatemala contends that it is a treaty of cession. They argue that for a valid consideration they ceded a part of the territory of Belize to Britain. The consideration would take the form of a cart road or a river route leading to Guatemala’s coast.

Guatemala argues that Britain reneged on its promise to contribute to the road or river route which is contained in Article 7 of the treaty. So, as a consequence of the British failure to honor Article 7 of the treaty, Guatemala ended the treaty and reverted to its 1821 possession with respect to the lands of Belize that it continues to claim in the southern part of Belize between the Sibun and Sarstoon Rivers and some of the coastal islands.

Professor Vasciannie argues that Article 1 of the 1859 Treaty represents an acknowledgment of a defined border and that the British title has not been relinquished since the signing of the treaty, and that the evidence that the treaty was not a treaty of cession is quite strong.

 Professor Vasciannie said Article 7 is not so properly defined, so it is difficult to pinpoint exactly where the breach had occurred, and what was the legal consequence Britain faced for the breach.

He said that Guatemala could argue that the British breach of article 7 was a material breach of the treaty, and under those circumstances they could argue that they can terminate the treaty.

A termination of the treaty would mean that the status quo ante of Belizean territory would revert back to Guatemala.

Guatemala, however, never attempted to terminate the treaty until 1940, a full 60 years after it had signed it. Professor Vasciannie’s view of this is that Guatemala has acquiesced in the validity of the treaty.

The 1931 Exchange of Notes gave renewed validity to the treaty between Guatemala and Britain, Professor Vasciannie said.

By 1940, however, Guatemala terminated the treaty. This poses a challenge for the ICJ, Professor Vasciannie said, because it would have to assess the boundary question and the title to the territory prior to 1859.

Belize also has a strong argument of self-determination, Professor Vasciannie said, and that would be a factor before the ICJ.

Professor Vasciannie also looked at the Guatemalan Armed Forces’ (GAF) posture in the Sarstoon River and is of the view that Belize must continue to send diplomatic protest notes about the GAF incursions.

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