Border controversy

We will be waiting today for the big news from New York. At the time of writing not a whisper from the government citadel had escaped to give us advance notice as to what it would be. So we wait.

Before he left office at the end of 2016, former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon had decided that where the Guyana-Venezuela border controversy was concerned, the two sides would persist with the Good Offices process for another year, but should that process produce no result, he would refer the matter to the International Court of Justice in The Hague for a judicial decision.  Ban Ki-Moon was succeeded by António Guterres, who indicated that he would accept his predecessor’s decision in the matter.

Guyana has been pushing publicly for a referral of the controversy to the ICJ since the end of the period when the PPP was in office, and the position was adopted by the APNU+AFC government which followed it. If nothing else, this is one of those rare occasions when both our fractious parties have been in complete accord on a matter, and furthermore, there has been continuity in terms of policy following a change of administration.

The controversy between Venezuela and Guyana does not relate to the substantive issue of where the border between the two states lies; as far as this country is concerned that was established by an Arbitral Tribunal which met in Paris in 1899, whose award both sides agreed to accept as “full, final and perfect.” And for more than sixty years both sides did. But in 1962 Venezuela challenged the validity of the 1899 award, and it is over this contention that the controversy has arisen.

In 1966, this country was about to become independent, and Britain, the colonial authority, did not want to leave Guyana exposed to possible aggression from Venezuela. Consequently following a meeting in Geneva an Agreement was signed between Britain and Venezuela on February 17. Forbes Burnham also signed, and subsequent to the attainment of independence, Guyana became a full party to the Agreement. (It might be noted that Geneva did not prevent Venezuela from defying its terms by seizing this country’s half of the island of Ankoko in the Cuyuni River in October 1966. She has never relinquished it.)

Following the exhaustion of the sequence of options set out in the Geneva Agreement, we reached the final stage where the UN Secretary General has to choose a means of settlement stipulated in Article 33 of the UN Charter. For twenty-five years that has been the Good Offices process, which the Venezuelans very much want to continue, but which has produced nothing. This is simply because their whole objective has been not to produce anything, but to keep applying unrelenting pressure to Guyana in the expectation that some government in Georgetown will eventually tire of the bullying and cede territory. To their combined credit, no government in Georgetown in more than fifty years has been prepared to trade away some portion of our territory in return for the cessation of duress, coercion and blackmail by our western neighbour.

In contrast, Guyana wants an end to the problem, the best route to which is via the ICJ. Venezuela does not want to go to The Hague, because her case that the 1899 Award is null and void is very weak, and she has always recognized that she would almost certainly lose it. This does not mean to say that she would accept a result which went against her. But it would strip her of further legal options and knock the bottom out of any ‘moral’ claim she is asserting (it should be strongly emphasized that she has no ‘moral’ claim whatsoever). It would simply make her task of broadcasting to the world that she has been ‘despoiled’ infinitely more challenging in terms of persuading foreigners to believe her. While the ‘despoiliation’ allegation is not credible now, other countries in this hemisphere, in particular, probably do not go to the trouble of uncovering  the truth of the matter; they simply accept Venezuela’s account. However, once they learn that the frontier was laid down in 1899, and that that Award was recognized as valid in the twenty-first century by the ICJ, with some exceptions, they will be a great deal less disposed to give Venezuela even tacit support.

Despite her moral and legal case, Guyana has been altogether too casual in recent times about promoting the truth of the situation. Even the local population has not been sensitized to what our case is, and the local media not infrequently confuses ‘dispute’ with ‘controversy’, regarding them as interchangeable terms. Not all that many people understand that Guyana’s wish to have recourse to the ICJ relates only to the validity of the 1899 Award; there is no ‘dispute’ about the boundary per se. Whatever many foreigners may think, that remains an internationally recognized frontier.

Furthermore, there appears to have been no attempt by the authorities to submit articles on the subject to internationally recognized journals, particularly those in this hemisphere. (Written in English, these can easily be translated into Spanish, or whatever language is required.) Hispanic nations will automatically feel a sympathy for Venezuela, no matter how ‘wrong and strong’ she may be. Guyana can only start turning the tide of Latin opinion if we give our viewpoint exposure in academic journals, in the first instance. Academic opinion and its influence are never to be underestimated. There are other variations on this theme too which could be explored.

Apart from sensitizing the local population in a systematic fashion – it is not enough for the nation to be united on this issue, it must appear to be so – and beginning the process of spreading our message abroad, the powers that be have to communicate more with citizens as to what is happening. There has been no scene-setter for Mr Guterres’s announcement today, for example, (assuming that it comes or that it takes the form Guyanese have been led to expect), other than vague expressions of hope from Minister Harmon. But where is the Foreign Minister? What does he have to say about the matter?

Whatever happens today, the government must commit to a policy of educating local citizens and promulgating its case beyond our borders; it should be their New Year resolution for 2018.

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