Guatemala Votes to Send Belize Border Dispute to ICJ
On April 15, Guatemalans voted to file a claim that seeks to recover over 53 percent of Belize’s territory. The ballot asked whether voters agreed to send the issue to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) located in the Hague, Netherlands.
The land dispute involves over 4,200 square miles of terrain administered by Belize, spanning almost the entire southern half of the country. According to the Economist, the government of Belize believes the referendum results will help “contribute further to the strengthening of democracy, peace and security.”
While some may find the Belizean governments statement confusing, the history behind the referendum is older than Belize itself. During the 1700’s Spain agreed to let Britain cut wood in the northern part of Belize. After the Spaniards packed up their bags in the 1800’s, Britain formally took over the region, naming it “British Honduras.”
The newly formed state of Guatemala claimed it had inherited the region of Belize from Spain. In 1859, Guatemala forfeited its rights to Belize in a treaty with Britain. The treaty ensured the construction of a road between Guatemala City and the Caribbean. However, the road was never built and Guatemala declared the treaty void.
Throughout the 20th century, Guatemala’s threats to invade its neighbor have always loomed large in the small nation of Belize. In 1991, Guatemala officially recognized Belize as an independent nation, yet this did not stop Guatemala from resurrecting its territorial claims over Belize again in 1999.
After years of stalled discussions between the two countries, Guatemala and Belize finally agreed to resolve the territorial dispute by conferring the issue to the ICJ in 2008. In order for the ICJ to have jurisdiction, the citizens of both countries must vote on the issue by way of referendum.
Due to deep political corruption and crime in Guatemala, it took a decade for the referendum vote to take place.
While a significant majority voted to resolve the issue in court, voter turnout in Guatemala was only 26 percent. “Most people consider it irrelevant,” said Fernando Carrera, a former foreign minister.
The referendum vote passed with 89 percent choosing to send the issue to the ICJ.
The next referendum is set to take place in Belize in 2019, according to the Economist. If the people of Belize vote in favor of the referendum, the matter will be turned over to the ICJ.
“If Belize wins, we win nothing,” said Osmond Martinez, a professor at Galen University in Belmopan, who expects Belizeans to vote no. “If we lose, we lose 12,000 [square] km of our country.”
After news of Guatemala's yes vote broke, the country was congratulated by the United Kingdom. “Through debate, discussion and deliberations, they confirmed that the ICJ route is the best way to resolve any differences. The British Government supports this process as the route agreed upon jointly by Guatemala and Belize,” said Carolyn Davidson, the United Kingdom’s Ambassador to Guatemala.