A long-running border dispute between Guatemala and Belize that was unresolved after exhaustive negotiations will go to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) if the people of the two countries pass referenda in support of the move.
In a diplomatic breakthrough on Monday, the countries signed an agreement that paves the way for the ICJ initiative, and also marks the first treaty between them to end the territorial dispute that dates back over a century. The special agreement, referred to as a ‘compromis’, sets the guidelines on the way forward for both countries in relation to the dispute, should it go to the international court.
Though they accepted a move to international adjudication since earlier this year, there has been reluctance on both sides to put the issue to the ICJ. Belizeans have been skeptical about its territorial rights being put before the court, and Guatemalans have been reluctant because it feared the outcome would not be in its favour.
But Belizean Prime Minister Dean Barrow was reported as saying that the ICJ move will put the dispute to rest and though there is some skepticism, he believes that Belize has a very high chance of a favourable outcome.
Barrow said that both governments “have determined and agreed that it is the right of our people to make the final decision on this matter. Therefore it is our responsibility to put the question to them by way of referendum…” If voters in both nations pass the referenda, the special agreement dictates that three months after the court’s judgments the two countries will form a bi-national commission to carry out the marking of boundaries in line with what the court has ordered.
The secrets documents constituting the bone of contention for the ICJ to rule on have yet to be made public, but Barrow had advanced that the documents may be released this week following the signing ceremony.
The two countries signed the agreement at the headquarters of the Organisation of American States (OAS) in Washington DC. At the ceremony, Belize’s Foreign Minister, Wilfred Elrington told his Guatemalan counterpart, Roger Haroldo Rodas Melgar that history will remember him as one of the architects of “what portents to be the lasting solution to our differences.”
Since the ICJ move is costly, Belize’s negotiating team has since pointed to financial assistance for the country, but a fund is to be set up by the OAS that will contribute to legal costs for both countries. The UK has already donated £200,000 to the fund.
The dispute between Belize and Guatemala goes back to 1859. Belize (formerly British Honduras) became self-governing in 1974, and from 1975 successive UN resolutions endorsed Belize’s right to independence and territorial sovereignty. It became an independent state in 1981 recognised by all states except Guatemala. It was only in 1991 that Guatemala recognized Belize as a sovereign state, but the two countries have been unable to agree on their mutual border, and Guatemala has maintained a territorial claim on a part of Belize.
Since 2000 the countries have tried to resolve the dispute through peaceful negotiation with the support of the OAS.