Mexican attorney, Carlos Bernal Verea, who was part of a 2003 team which successfully litigated a case before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) favors Belize and Guatemala definitively resolving their centuries-old territorial dispute at the ICJ. His main reasoning is that the Court is “the perfect forum” to ultimately resolve the matter and eliminate the burden hanging over our heads. However, Bernal also made some points that are sure to resonate with the “NO to the ICJ” camp.
Belizean media met with the now professor for a decade of the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de Mexico (ITAM) in Mexico City. The hour-long taped discussion was facilitated by the US Embassy in Belmopan as part of a project titled “From Fear to Facts: Demystifying the ICJ.” The ultimate plan is for the media group to travel to the ICJ for an educational visit at the end of November.
Among the expectations is for the media to learn about and witness first-hand some of the processes of the Court. Having represented Mexico against the United States in the contentious Avena Case, Bernal knows all too well those processes and called them complicated and extensive.
In what has been Mexico’s only case before the ICJ, the state complained that the US breached the Vienna Convention by not providing immediate consular access to 54 Mexican nationals who were arrested, tried and sentenced to death. In 2004 the ICJ ruled in favour of Mexico. However, the US has since executed 3 of the Mexicans in breach of the ICJ ruling. Professor Bernal admitted that the ICJ has no enforcement arm and added that recourse to the United Nations Security Council is also futile as it could only condemn the attitude of the non-compliant state, asking them to comply with the judgment, “and that’s it.”
Taking into account considerations about the composition of the 15-member Bench at the ICJ was slightly complicated. Bernal called them “great jurists” appointed by the UN at “the most impartial possible court in the world.” But then he referenced that it will give Belize some confidence that a Jamaican and Brazilian jurist currently sit on the bench. Also of note, he said, is that for the first time in the ICJ’s history the UN last year did not vote for a British judge (something he believes we should study).
We therefore asked about the likelihood of geopolitics coming into play at the ICJ. While he would not deny that judges are only human with individual tendencies and “politics are politics and I’m sure all the judges read the papers everyday,” the law professor hastened to clarify that “judges are individual; they don’t represent their countries”. He affirmed too that “the judgment is based on one thing: international law.”
Were Belize and Guatemala to end up before the ICJ, Bernal says the 1859 boundary treaty between Great Britain and Guatemala would be the essence of the case and in his limited knowledge of the dispute, “Guatemala has very little rights over what it’s claiming.”