Belizeans vote to go to International Court of Justice

Belizeans have voted to ask the United Nation’s International Court of Justice (ICJ) to resolve finally the country’s border dispute with Guatemala.

In an 8 May referendum, 55.4% of Belizean voters opted to send the matter to the ICJ for a ruling, according to results published by Belize’s elections and boundaries commission, while 44.6% of those voting were opposed. About 65% of registered electors turned out to vote. The much-delayed referendum followed one in Guatemala in April 2018 in which its citizens voted by an overwhelming majority but in a low turnout – just 26% of its much larger electorate – to also have the ICJ rule on the dispute.

In a statement, Guatemala’s Government welcomed the outcome and said that it would be discussing with the Belize Government the next steps. Its foreign ministry said that the final resolution of the long running dispute which dates back to 1821 “will broaden and deepen the good relations that exist between Guatemala and Belize”.

An interim statement released by Commonwealth Observer Group Chairman and former Bahamas Prime Minister, Hubert Ingraham, described the vote as “credible, transparent and inclusive”. The outcome was welcomed by the EU, the US State Department and the OAS.

The referendum had previously been challenged before the Supreme Court of Belize on a number of grounds. This had led to an injunction being issued by the Supreme Court which delayed the original vote date. However, the Court of Appeals subsequently agreed to have the injunction lifted by a majority vote.

The issue has proved politically divisive within the opposition Peoples United Party (PUP). After having initially encouraged a ‘yes’ vote its leader, John Briceno, changed his opinion in 2018 as a result of internal party pressures.

Speaking following the outcome of the referendum the Prime Minister, Dean Barrow, told the media that as he plotted a course forward, he would seek to create ‘national unity outreach’ to the PUP and others who had opposed going to the ICJ “so there can be no slip-ups and no deviation from the path”. It would be important, he said, for Belize to go to the ICJ in unity.

Barrow also said that Government will amend the 1992 Maritime Areas Act which was signed into law as part of its negotiating strategy. This accepted a 3-mile limit to its territorial sea, instead of the 12-mile limit that it is entitled to under the Law of the Sea. Barrow said that the act, passed to aid negotiations with Guatemala, was no longer needed, and would be amended before Government formally told the ICJ that a case would be brought before it.

The Referendum Election was based on an agreement signed between Belize and Guatemala on 8 December 2008, to take the Guatemalan claim to Belize to the ICJ in the Hague for a final resolution a process. This is expected to take up to four years.

The question asked in the referendum was: “Do you agree that any legal claim of Guatemala against Belize relating to land and insular territories and to any maritime areas pertaining to these territories should be submitted to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for final settlement and that it determine finally the boundaries of the respective territories and areas of the parties?”

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