Guyana-Venezuela border controversy for World Court

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (centre) joins President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela (left) and President David Granger of Guyana in a three-way handshake at the United Nations headquarters in New York in September 2016. (UN photo)

United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres has recommended that the Guyana/Venezuela border controversy be referred to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in what will be seen as a pivotal development in this country’s bid to conclusively rebuff the spurious territorial claim of its neighbour to the west.

Over the last three years, Guyana has been seeking recourse to the ICJ to settle the controversy with Venezuela which emerged in 1962.

Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had given the good offices process between the two countries one additional year – 2017 –  for talks at settling the controversy and if there was no substantial progress the matter would then be sent to the ICJ, also known as the World Court.

Yesterday, that decision was made by his successor Secretary-General, Guterres. Venezuela’s revived claim to the Essequibo in 1962 has led to decades of destabilization of efforts by Guyana and international partners to develop projects in the country’s largest county.

Following the decision by the UN  to refer the matter to the ICJ, Guyana welcomed the move. Up to press time there was no reaction from Venezuela to the UN decision.

The decision came after 27 years of attempting to utilize the Good Offices process to arrive at a solution to the controversy.

A statement issued yesterday by the Spokesman for the Secretary-General noted that Guterres “has carefully analysed developments in 2017 in the good offices process and has concluded that significant progress has not been made toward arriving at a full agreement for the solution of the controversy Accordingly, the Secretary-General has fulfilled the responsibility that has fallen to him within the framework set by his predecessor in December 2016, and has chosen the International Court of Justice as the means to be used for the solution of the controversy.”

President David Granger responded in an address to the Nation by welcoming the decision and stressing his confidence that Guyana’s legal case is sound.

The president reiterated that “Guyana’s position has always been that the basis of the controversy is a legal question which should be resolved peacefully and conclusively through a legal process.”

“Guyana remains confident in the correctness of its case. Guyana looks forward to the reaffirmation of the validity of the 1899 arbitral award before the International Court of Justice…Guyana will pursue the path ahead in furtherance of the preservation of its sovereignty and territorial integrity with quiet confidence and with the assurance in ever improving relations with its neighbours, Brazil, Suriname and Venezuela.” he added.

Granger reminded that the controversy arose out of the Venezuelan contention, first voiced in 1962, that the arbitral award was null and void and stressed that Guyana will take all the necessary steps to ensure that its national patrimony will be protected for all time while remaining committed to the peaceful settlement of disputes, respect for international agreement and treaties and to maintaining friendly relations with its neighbours.

Minister of Foreign Affair Carl Greenidge, who also released a statement on the issue, noted that the fact that “Guyana has stood firm against Venezuela’s attempt to re-open a territorial boundary settled and recognised for half a century before its independence, and done so despite the manifest unequal strengths between the two countries, is to [its] national credit.”

“Guyana, as one of the world’s small developing countries, is pleased that its reliance on the rule of law internationally has been the underpinning of its national sovereignty,” the statement added.

Guyana’s border with its western neighbour was conclusively settled via the Arbitral Award of 1899. However shortly before Guyana’s independence in 1966, Venezuela began contending that the award was null and void consequently the Geneva Agreement was signed with the aim of amicably resolving the controversy that had arisen as the result of this claim.

The 1966 Geneva Agreement confers on the Secretary-General of the United Nations the power to choose the means of settlement of the controversy from among those that are contemplated in Article 33 of the United Nations Charter. The Geneva Agreement also provides that if the means so chosen does not lead to a solution of the controversy, the Secretary-General is to choose another means of settlement.

Guyana has been seeking recourse to the ICJ to settle the long-running controversy with Venezuela but Venezuela has repeatedly expressed a preference for the good offices process.

Yesterday’s UN statement explained that within the framework of the Geneva Agreement, a Good Offices Process under the Secretary-General has been in place since 1990 in order to find a solution to the controversy.  This process has so far involved three Personal Representatives of the Secretary-General (PRSG) but has been able to bridge the differences between the parties.

It reminded that former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had communicated to the parties on 15 December 2016 a framework for the resolution of the border controversy based on his conclusions on what would constitute the most appropriate next steps. In this communication he stated that the Good Offices Process would continue for one final year, until the end of 2017, with a strengthened mandate of mediation.

He also reached the conclusion that if, by the end of 2017, his successor, Secretary-General António Guterres, concluded that significant progress had not been made towards arriving at a full agreement for the solution of the controversy, he would choose the International Court of Justice as the next means of settlement, unless the Governments of Guyana and Venezuela jointly requested that he refrain from doing so.

Guiterres appointed Norwegian Dag Halvor Nylander as Personal Representative on the issue.  Nylander engaged in a series of intensive high-level efforts to seek a negotiated settlement to the controversy but was unsuccessful.

As such the Secretary General has recommended that the matter be referred to the ICJ.

He has also noted that “Guyana and Venezuela could benefit from the continued good offices of the United Nations through a complementary process established on the basis of the powers of the Secretary-General under the Charter of the United Nations.”

Greenidge has acknowledged this recommendation noting that “Guyana will not allow factors extraneous to the controversy to influence its referral to the Court but it will continue the advancement of peaceful relations with Venezuela whose people are the brothers and sisters of Guyanese.”