Is it, “Showtime!!” and “Let’s get it on!!”?
Or is the “Compromis” bait too juicy, too risky for Belize?
Once Christmas celebrations are over, and the Krem New Year’s Cycling Classic 2019 is completed, Belizeans at home and abroad will suddenly start to feel the tension and the urgency of the moment in deciding what we will do on that fateful day, April 10, 2019, when our voting population will cast our individual ballots in a referendum to decide whether or not we should get on board the “Compromis” vehicle to the ICJ to “finally settle” the dispute we have apparently inherited from Great Britain with Guatemala, formerly called the “Anglo-Guatemalan dispute.” Each one of us voters will enter that booth, where none can see our mark, and cast our vote as “Yes” or “No”; and then we will wait and pray that the final outcome is good for Belize. From January on, we will more and more begin to feel the pressure of that decision. Silently, some who were stalwart “Yes’s” may begin to waver, while some formerly strident “No’s” might have second thoughts. But what we all must maintain is respect for each other, and that respect means accepting the will of the majority when the referendum vote is over, and then praying and working together for the best for our sweet home, Belize.
There are some things that we all agree on. From “proud Rio Hondo to old Sarstoon,” Belize is our home, our native land, “Land of the Free, Belize;” and we are not prepared to give up “one square centimeter,” “not a blade of grass.”
We are not “crazy” people here, except that we may all be crazy with love for Belize, sweet home, Belize. We may argue, we may get emotional; but we must never lose respect for one another’s opinion; because we all mean well, we all want what is best for our country.
The question we all will ask ourselves is, which is the best vote to secure the Jewel for our children and grandchildren? Is it “Yes” or “No” to the Compromis question in the referendum?
That question again reads: “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 determine finally the boundaries of the respective territories and areas of the Parties?”
Only Almighty God, Jah, knows what is the right answer; and it is said that “Vox populi vox Dei est” — the voice of the people is the voice of God.
Belizeans believe in the justice of our cause, our right to self-determination and territorial integrity, which 144 nations of the world voted to support in granting us our independence from Great Britain in 1981. We are all convinced that Guatemala’s claim to our land is “unfounded,” and unjustified; and a fair court should decide in our favor. But the reality is that there is always a thing called “litigation risk,” and Belize has lost so many seemingly winnable cases over the past ten years, to the tune of many millions of dollars, that there is an instinctive doubt and even fear of putting up our whole country to be decided by any court. It is all about a land grab to Guatemala; but for Belizeans, this is indeed an existential crisis. Should there ever be any question of “from proud Rio Hondo to old Sarstoon?” But once litigation begins, that will be a valid question; which is why the “No’s” are adamant that the “Compromis” pill is just too big to swallow.
There must be a better, safer way “to skin this cat,” is the argument of those who say “No” to the Compromis. In fact, it is even proposed (first by Lindsay Belisle) that we may be undermining our own case in principle by voting “Yes” to this Compromis, as that act could be construed as agreeing to nullify the “etched in stone” character of our borders. The retort of the “Yes’s” is that even submitting the 1859 treaty for an opinion by the ICJ would have the same effect, submitting to a court the judgment of the validity of the treaty that sanctifies our borders.
For sure, if the “Yes” vote would prevail, there is no Belizean lawyer that would more enjoy the confidence of Belizeans to help fight the case for us, than the one Assad Shoman. He is not getting any younger, but he is still in “fighting form.” But lawyers are about arguing cases, and the “No’s” are still wondering if we must “go there.” Must we take that risk?
A major concern for the “No’s” is the vagueness of the “any legal claim of Guatemala…” Is that giving Guatemala too much room for mischief?
Shoman argues that “to get rid of the claim, we need to go to Court,” because “we have tried all those ways (the UN Charter calls for) — negotiations, mediation, regional organizations, etc.; all except judicial settlement.” (page 4 of Assad Shoman’s Pocket Guide to the Referendum on the ICJ).
Point. But other voices (Sandra Coye, Wil Maheia, Lindsay Belisle, Paul Morgan, Sidley Leslie, Patrick Rogers, et al.) are wondering if, in trying to catch this Guatemala fish and finally rid ourselves of their annoying claim, we haven’t agreed to too much, offered them too much of a juicy bait, with potential risks for Belize, by accepting this Compromis to get them to agree to go to the ICJ. To the “No’s,” the Compromis is the problem, not the ICJ.
With all the negotiation and mediations over the decades, every proposal has failed to satisfy the Guatemalan oligarchs. They insist on land. Shoman quotes a Guatemalan Foreign Minister (page 27 of the Pocket Guide) as saying: “The day the international tribunal decides how the pie is to be sliced, we shall be content because we will have solved the dispute…” (Our underlining) Clearly, they will not be content without “a piece of the pie,” meaning a piece of Belize.
Indeed, the British have tried before to take the case with Guatemala to the ICJ; but the Brits insisted it was only the 1859 Treaty and 1931 Notes that would be adjudicated at the ICJ; and the Guats adamantly and consistently refused. The “No’s” now are worried; why is Guatemala now “gung ho” to go to the ICJ with this “Compromis”? Is it because of “any legal claim”?
So, then, Shoman’s argument is that the ICJ is the only way for us to, in local parlance, shut this bully up and let them get the sense. Shoman insists he sees “no real risks for our sovereignty and territorial integrity by going to the ICJ.” Ironically, he argues that, after 51 years of fruitless negotiation, “This is the one and only time we are asked to agree to a process that does not require us to give up anything or to make any concession. This is a case of no compromise, no surrender, just fight all the way for what is rightfully ours.” (Pocket Guide) Brave words, but other heads see in the Compromis, signed by our Foreign Minister in December, 2008, as already giving a lot of room for Guatemala to maneuver. They, the “No’s” would feel better going straight and simple with the 1859 Treaty and 1931 Notes to the ICJ, and that would settle everything. But again, the Guatemalan fish have consistently refused to “bite that bait.”
So, what to do? It’s a tough call, and the gut instinct of the “No’s” says, “A noh trust;” while the confident “Yes’s” declare, “It’s now or never.” There is a lot to think about.
The debate will certainly rage on in the coming months; and Belizeans will get a chance to learn a lot they haven’t learned in school about our country and its neighbor to the west. It should make us a stronger nation. The most important thing to remember, though, is that in times of trouble we need to pull together as one people. Whichever way the tide flows come referendum day, the survival of our nation demands from all of us, besides formulating our decision to vote “Yes” or “No,” that we all commit to our faith and love for Belize, and to stand together behind the decision we all collectively make on that historic day. Whether the referendum result is Yes or No, we must stand together as one after the voting is over. Belizean unity and love for God and country will see us through this crisis. There is no other way. Belize forever!!