Reports of gun violence, deaths and other criminal activities are the stories that get much feedback from the public via social media or the local talk shows. They are the news reports that have citizens both home and abroad calling on the Government and law enforcement agencies to up their strategies in an effort to curb the crime situation … and while that is understandably so, there is an issue that has loomed over the country for decades now that the citizens don’t seem to put much interest in – that is the territorial claim from Guatemala that seeks to take away more than half of Belize’s land mass. The very same districts and towns that we grew up learning to be Belize’s geography is threatened to be taken away and yet, there is not much coming from the public and there is somewhat of a boycott by the People’s United Party, particularly, in the recent signing of the Amendments to the 2008 Special Agreement that took place in Guatemala this past Monday. But, despite the lack of feedback or response on the matter, there is the mandate of the news media to keep the nation up to date with national issues. With the Belize/Guatemala dispute over land being one of the top national issues for our country, we set out to get things simplified outside the political lines by speaking with Ambassador Stuart Leslie, who was at the signing over this past holiday weekend. Ambassador Leslie is tasked along with Ambassador James Murphy to sensitize the Belizean public on the advantages and disadvantages of going to the international Court of Justice. Ambassador Leslie spoke with Love News today about the amendments that were made to that Special Agreement document that was initially signed in 2008.
“The Special Agreement says that in the original state that the parties will go to a simultaneous referendum. Belize and Guatemala met and decided that date was to have been the 6th of October, if you will recall, 2013 …. and then, Guatemala in April or June of that year informed us that they were not prepared to go to a referendum on the 6th of October 2013 and so what ensued from there was more talks on how do we get back on track so we could have a simultaneous referenda … and then, at the Summit of the Americas, a few months ago, the President of Guatemala informed the Prime Minister that they would like to have the referendum sometime this year. So, because we were not prepared, because we wanted to have enough time to get Belizeans fully informed, the compromise was, look Guatemala wanted to have one amendment to the Special Agreement to say we could go simultaneously or separately, in the event that Belize may have an opportunity to go and Guatemala is not or Guatemala may have an opportunity to go and Belize is not. I believe that one of the reasons that Guatemala wanted to make this amendment to say simultaneously, that option is not off the table, or separately, is because of how much it would cost them to have a referendum in Guatemala. They are saying it would cost about fifty million US dollars because they have to print ballots in fourteen languages etc., so what they were saying is the best scenario for us is to put it on a ballot when we’re having an election and they do that once every five years and they are having an election this year so they are saying if we could go through our processes and get in on the ballots this year would Belize be ready to get it on the ballots this year and so the Prime Minister in his wisdom and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs I assume after consultation decided you know what, we can live with a separate or simultaneous and so Guatemala right now still has to go through another process which is to go to their congress and get approval to have the referendum on the national ballot.”
According to Ambassador Leslie, the very small changes that were made to two of the articles in the Special Agreement document will have no major implications for Belize.
“No change that would have a major implications … but if you go back and look at the special agreements, it talks about how you deposit the case to the court and in the original special agreement it had a clear set of rules that if the two of us did it together within a certain time period we would have to inform the ICJ and instruct the ICJ that they can begin the procedures for them to hear the case because you must remember, Renee, the ICJ can’t just hear a case, in this case, in this instance, we have to instruct the ICJ what to do. The special agreement sets out very clearly what we want the ICJ to do and that is to determine strictly on the basis of international law our insular, maritime and territorial claim by Guatemala to Belize. Always remember, Guatemala is claiming us, we don’t want a part of Guatemala, we want what we have. We have a right , that our cause is just so it’s that Guatemala has a quarrel with us in terms of our territory. We have to make our case. And so what we have to amend also how you take the case to the court because if it’s not simultaneous, let’s say for example Belize should have a referendum separate from Guatemala and we go first, then there is a procedure of how you deposit that case to the court. If Guatemala goes first how do they deposit and so one side would have to wait for the other side and so all the amendment is saying, the second little change is one side will deposit and wait for the other side and it doesn’t change anything about the court procedures, it doesn’t. Remember what it is that we are asking the court to do is to determine based on Article 38-1 strictly on the basis of international law any and all claims by Guatemala to Belizean territory and for the court to determine finally so that you can’t come back again.”
Love News understands that Guatemala is looking to have their referendum held simultaneously with their upcoming elections later this year. Meanwhile Belize’s Foreign Minister has indicated that our referendum will be treated with urgency and will be planned for sooner rather than later.