There is no agreement recognizing Suriname’s sovereignty over the Corentyne River

Dear Editor,
I have read with dismay the article entitled ‘Diplomatic Belligerence’ which appeared on page 12 of Kaieteur News on October 21, 2008. A second article in today’s (October 23) issue continues in the same vein.
The writer began by imploring Guyanese to “not allow… love for Guyana to blind them to an objective assessment of the facts.” I will not seek to assess the love for which country made the writer make the sweeping assertions that he made, but I must say that s/he did not adhere to his own advice.

For instance, s/he asserts that s/he knows of “no principle of international law” which supports the contention that there should be user rights or shared sovereignty over the use of the Corentyne River.  But s/he did not say on what principle, law or agreement s/he bases Suriname’s sovereignty over the river.  Was it by default?  What are the principles of international law or case law to support that contention?  The writer makes the assertion that “clearly Suriname feels that the high water mark is its territory” and insinuates that this is consistent with international law which gives a country exclusive rights over its territory.  While this is an absurdity in and of itself, what about what Guyana feels, if subjective views, according to the writer, hold sway in international law?

The writer alludes to a “historical agreement” which supposedly gave Suriname sovereignty over the river, but I do not know how the readers are to educate themselves about that “agreement” if it is not identified.   I must therefore be forgiven if I assume that the writer was referring to the 1799 Governors’ Agreement, whereby the Governors of Berbice and Suriname sought to declare the rights of the respective colonies.  The 1799 Governors’ agreement did not assign to Suriname’s ownership of the river.  The agreement stated that “none of the Islands situate in the River Corentyne shall be included in this provisional cession, but always be acknowledged to belong to the Government of the Colony of Surinam.”

I am advised that there is a Latin phrase that contract and treaty lawyers often use: Expressio unias est exclusio alteris (the expression of one thing is the exclusion of another). That is, the Governors expressly stated that the islands are Suriname’s and therefore excluded the river from their agreement.  If the Governors had decided that the Corentyne River was Suriname’s then ipso facto, there would have been reasonable grounds to argue that the islands would have also been Suriname’s.  They did not do so.
Clearly, therefore, the 1799 Governors’ Agreement is of no support to the assertions made by the writer.  I invite the writer to revert to me if the 1799 Agreement is not the “historical agreement” to which he refers.  I know of no other agreement that is relevant to the matter at hand.

The writer states that there are principles which in the absence of an agreement would allow for the demarcation of river boundaries. I am advised that, in international law and practice, agreement precedes demarcation, not the reverse.  However international law and practice aid negotiation, the preparation of agreements and indeed “understandings” pending formal agreement since the parties concerned are able to use the law and practice to guide them in their search for an “arrangement” that does not prejudice their legitimate rights.  This has been the reason for Guyana invoking the jurisprudence of the cases with Venezuela and Brazil.  There are other cases that support Guyana’s position, but those two are geographically close.  The jurisprudence is dispassionate, and they are invoked by Guyana because they indicate what are perhaps the very least that both sides would be given rights to if there could be mutual agreement (and that is absolutely necessary) to engage in some form of adjudicatory process to definitively delimit the boundary with respect to the Corentyne River. For that the Government of Guyana is ridiculed by the writer, but may I remind him/her that this was the position of the British before our independence in 1966.  It was the position that Britain and The Netherlands all but signed off on by September of 1939.  It is the position of every Guyanese who is informed of the facts and the law.

As if it were at all necessary to impugn the sanctity of agreements that established the point where the boundaries among Guyana, Brazil and Suriname meet, the writer states that Guyana should “move towards an international commission to definitively settle this (the Corentyne River dispute) and the more (emphasis mine) contentious issue of the New River Triangle.”  Guyana has not traditionally been a member of the less than handful of countries that advocate the reopening or revision of boundary agreements, treaties or awards which are solemnly entered into.  Guyana is not about to join them. Secondly, the writer should perhaps be forgiven if he has forgotten that there is an established mechanism of meetings of the Border Commissions of Guyana and Suriname. It is Suriname’s turn to issue invitations for the next meeting.

The writer charges that the Government of Guyana has neglected to seek an arrangement with Suriname that would have ensured the use of the Corentyne River by ships transporting sugar from the expanded facility at Skeldon. Not so.  Suriname’s notification purporting to extend Surinamese law and regulations into the Corentyne River (dated May 15, 2008 but received in Guyana on July 7, 2008) was responded to by Guyana.  In its response Guyana stated that Surinamese officials could not arrogate to themselves the authority to institute the arrangements mentioned. Guyana requested consultations.  There was no response from Suriname until after the incident of October 14, 2008.

Again, the writer should be forgiven for either not making himself aware or not knowing or recognising that Suriname’s position is not to negotiate rights to the use of the river, but to impose terms by which Guyana and Guyanese would be allowed to use it.  Is the writer suggesting that this is a position that Guyana must accept?

I have counted 33 inaccuracies and unsubstantiated assertions in the piece.  Space did not allow me to address each of them.
Mr Editor, I have full respect for the right of journalists to write and express opinions, however contrary to Guyana’s position those opinions might be or supportive to those who maintain claims to Guyana’s territory and or seek to impugn our rights.

What I object to and cannot entertain are opinion pieces that are not based on fact and law or are so subjective, that truth and fact must be suppressed – even if the result is an attack on the interests of every Guyanese.  That, Mr Editor, borders on the unpardonable.
Yours faithfully,
Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett
Minister of Foreign Affairs

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