On Tuesday of last week United Nations Secretary General António Guterres selected the International Court of Justice as the means to a solution to the controversy which had arisen as a consequence of Venezuela’s contention that the 1899 Arbitral Award was null and void. If the relief was almost palpable in Georgetown, the sentiment in Caracas was altogether less sanguine, with the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry rejecting the notion of a recourse to the ICJ.
The border between Guyana and Venezuela was established by an international tribunal sitting in Paris in 1899, and was accepted by our western neighbour for sixty-three years. It might be noted in passing that as evidence of her acquiescence, Venezuela on at least two separate occasions over that period insisted on a punctilious adherence to the Award. In 1962, however, she rejected the Award in a statement at the UN, on the grounds that it was the consequence of a secret deal between Britain and Russia. The details are of no consequence here, other than to observe that they had no foundation in fact.
Since this was a period preparatory to Independence, and the British did not want to leave the new state exposed to the possible predatory actions of a larger neighbour without any kind of cover, they arranged a meeting at Geneva in February 1966, which eventuated in the Geneva Agreement. This international treaty – for that is what it is – was signed by the British, the Venezuelans and the British Guianese (as they then were), who were to be recognised as full parties to the treaty on Independence.
The wording of Geneva was carefully constructed. It does not deal with the substantive issue of where the border lies; after all, that was settled in 1899, and hence there is no dispute on that count. As indicated above, it is concerned only with the “controversy” Venezuela has created with her contention that the 1899 Award is null and void, and sets forth options for seeking a solution to this. At the final stage of those options – where we are now ‒ the matter goes into the hands of the UN Secretary General who chooses one of the means stipulated in Article 33 of the United Nations Charter until the matter has been resolved.
As most Guyanese are aware, since 1990 those means have been the Good Offices process. A series of three Good Officers have produced no results, and Guyana’s position is not only that the process has failed, but that the validity of the 1899 Award is essentially a legal matter and therefore needs a legal resolution, hence there should be a recourse to the World Court. Two observations are in order here. The first is that the initial announcement approximately three years ago whereby the public was told that the government thought the UN Secretary General should refer the matter to the ICJ, was made by the last PPP/C administration, not the current coalition one. This government has nevertheless pursued the same approach with some vigour, and thus it can be said that on an issue on which the country needs to be united and should be seen to be so, our two largest political parties are in accord.
The second is that the approaches of Guyana and Venezuela to Geneva are diametrically opposed. Guyana wants a solution to the controversy; Venezuela does not. Caracas’s aim has always been to extract territory from this country, and that has never changed despite periodic acts of indulgence in relation to oil, rice or whatever. Underlying all that, however, has been a consistent strategy of stymieing any meaningful development in Essequibo for more than half a century, with the intention of pressurising whatever government sits in Georgetown to cede territory.
Miraflores understands very well that its legal case against Guyana in relation to the validity of the Award is exceedingly weak, which is why it has never wanted any referral to the World Court. It is also very aware that the Geneva Agreement restricts its ambit of action which is why it has at different times acted in contravention of its provisions, tried to wriggle out of it, or has clung on to means for resolving the controversy which will not resolve it.
It did not take long, for example, for our neighbour to breach Geneva by invading Guyana’s portion of Ankoko in 1966 following Indpendence, and setting up a military base there. It is still in illegal occupation of this country’s territory. There have been a whole series of other breaches, a few of the more egregious being the Leoni Decree of 1968, where Venezuela claimed our territorial sea, President Maduro’s extraordinary pretensions to our maritime space, and the eviction of the Teknik Perdana from exploring for oil in our waters.
On a less bellicose note there was in 1995 a globality proposal by then Venezuelan Foreign Minister Burelli Rivas which would have had the effect of bilateralising the controversy and undermining Geneva, while in addition, Venezuela has promoted an inaccurate interpretation of the Agreement and has wrongfully accused Guyana of misrepresenting it.
There is no surprise, therefore, that the authorities to our west have not welcomed the announcement from the UN, stating that Geneva contained the means through which a “political” settlement of the controversy could be found. The question therefore arises as to whether they will appear at The Hague to argue their case. This question was answered by Mr Cedric Joseph at a University of Guyana forum on Thursday who said that if they do not, this country can unilaterally present its case, and that there is a precedent for this.
It has been earlier argued in some quarters that if Guyana wins its case – which it is likely to do – Venezuela may reject the decision. While that is quite possible, it will have knocked the bottom out of its moral and legal case. Where does it go after that to reopen the matter? How can it argue for arbitration to overrule the World Court? How can it justify pressuring Guyana for bilateral talks on the matter when the ICJ has already ruled? How can it defend printing maps which have Essequibo appended to its land mass? The metaphorical landscape will have changed after the ICJ has spoken, and any attempt to resuscitate the question on Venezuela’s part will not bring it sympathy in the international arena, and may well qualify as raw aggression.
There was one arguably strange recommendation in Secretary-General Guterres’s announcement, as reported by a UN spokesperson, and that was the statement: “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”. What exactly this means is not immediately apparent. Is this a continuation of the Good Officer process to run concurrently with the ICJ hearings? If so, it would be contradictory and would hardly make sense.
Or is this a sop to Venezuela, but is not intended to mean very much? Perhaps it is just a mechanism to help maintain a good temperature between the two nations at a time when Caracas will not be untroubled by the decision, and moreover when it is currently undergoing a major political and humanitarian crisis. One can only presume that George-town will seek some clarification on the matter.
That said, for once, all Guyanese without exception should be happy about this development. After all, we have waited decades for it.