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Dispute Frequently Asked Questions

1. Why do we have to resolve the dispute over Guatemala's Claim

Because this remains the unfinished business from Belize’s struggle for our independence with full sovereignty and territorial integrity. And if we don’t, we have a claim hanging over our heads for our territory from a powerful neighbor that is a military mis-match for us. Nobody can predict what a State may get away with at any given time. You may think that the international community would not allow Guatemala to take our territory, but you may be wrong. Remember that even when the British were here they thought that if Guatemala were to invade Belize they would succeed in occupying a part of our territory, and that it would be virtually impossible to turn back. So, we would be putting our people in grave danger if we do not do everything possible to resolve the dispute.

2. Didn’t the United Nations declare that Belize should receive its independence with full sovereignty and territorial integrity by 1981?

Yes, but the same General Assembly Resolution 35/20 also called for the differences arising from Guatemala’s claims to be resolved peacefully. It also called on independent Belize and Guatemala to work out arrangements for post-independence co-operation on matters of mutual concern. Having a border that your neighbor does not recognize is a matter of serious concern. There are fundamental differences between the two countries in respect of our respective territories and our shared borders, the solution of which requires us to cooperate in seeking a solution. General Assembly resolutions have no legal force, anyway. And the resolution calling for our independence speaks of “territorial integrity”, but does not define the territory, which Guatemala now claims is from the Hondo to the Sibun rivers.

3. Why not launch a huge lobbying effort for international support, like we did prior to independence?

Perhaps we can do more of that, but the fact remains that the international community continues to support Belize’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity. We regularly keep them informed in various fora. The international community reiterates their support for Belize every year, including at the highest levels such as Commonwealth Heads of Government, the ACP Summit, the Caricom Heads of Government, etc. However, they are also united in calling for Belize and Guatemala to resolve their differences, and to do so peacefully.

4. Why not ask the Secretary General of the United Nations to intervene to tell Guatemala leave us alone?

The Secretary General of the United nations has welcomed the decision of Belize and Guatemala to submit our differences to the ICJ for a final resolution and encourages us to follow that route.

5. The Security Council is the organ of the United Nations charged with ensuring that peace and security prevails in the world. Why not take the matter to the UN Security Council instead?

Yes, the Security Council has primary responsibility for the maintenance of peace and security under the UN Charter. The Charter of the United Nations further establishes that in making recommendations on how to resolve a dispute, the Security Council must take into consideration that legal disputes should as a general rule be resolved at the International Court of Justice. In the absence of an invasion or a full scale war, the Security Council will surely tell us to go to Court.

6. Why not take the matter to the UN General Assembly?

The General Assembly is the political organ of the United Nations. It has spoken in respect of its support for Belize’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, but it cannot settle borders between states. Absent a negotiated settlement between the parties to a dispute, the ICJ, as a permanent organ of the UN system, is the only authority empowered to do that. Indeed, the General Assembly has been one of the primary exponents of submitting disputes between its members to the jurisdiction of the Court.

7. Why not get an advisory opinion from the ICJ instead?

Advisory Opinions of the World Court are not binding for countries that have not submitted to the jurisdiction of the Court. The effect of an advisory opinion, therefore, would be no different than declarations and resolutions from the General Assembly of the United Nations. The fact will remain that the entire world knows that Guatemala’s failure to recognize the 1859 Treaty is wrong, and that its claims to Belize’s territory is totally without merit, but under our international system only the International Court of Justice can render binding decisions for Guatemala to respect the borders. What we need is a binding decision for Guatemala to have no choice but to recognize and respect our borders. An advisory opinion is by nature advisory, i.e. not binding.

8. Why go the the ICJ?

Because it is the organ of the United Nations created to resolve legal disputes between nations. At the heart of the problem with Guatemala is a legal dispute. We maintain that our borders were agreed and defined in the 1859 Treaty and Guatemala claims that that treaty is no longer valid. On the basis of that erroneous position Guatemala wants our territory or a part of it. On the other hand, in accordance fully with international law Belize has always maintained that it will not give up any piece of its land, insular or maritime territory. The Court will uphold established international law and tell Guatemala that it is in the wrong and must correct its ways. The important point for us is that the Court’s decisions are binding on the parties to a dispute submitted for its consideration.

9. Why go to the ICJ now?

Because every other peaceful means of dispute resolution has been tried and failed over a generation. Since the 1940s, the British were suggesting that the matter be submitted to the ICJ but Guatemala refused until it committed to it in 2008. It is the duty of every citizen of Belize to do everything possible to remove the greatest national security threat from off our backs. If we do nothing to resolve the dispute we put our territory and people in grave danger by prolonging the grave national security threat of the Guatemala claim.

10. What if Belize loses part of our territory in an ICJ decision?

That will not happen. Lawyers speak about litigation risk, but we also know that our international system under the United Nations is built around foundational principles of respect for the sanctity of borders and of treaties. It is inconceivable that the organ charged with upholding international law would seek to undermine any of these two fundamental principles. That is why we should not be afraid of taking our case to the ICJ. All the best and brightest international legal scholars and practitioners who have studied the matter have concluded that Belize’s case is very sound. On the basis of international law and on the evidence considered, Belize has good title to all its land, insular and maritime territories and that the claim to Belizean territory by the Republic of Guatemala is without merit and would be regarded as such by the International Court of Justice.

11. But hasn’t the ICJ ruled against Nigeria, Colombia and other countries who thought they were correct in their position?

Yes, and rightly so. Those decisions were squarely in favor of treaties that already defined boundaries. Guatemala can wish all it wants but the Court has to consider the 1859 Treaty, the 1931 Exchange of Notes, and the will of the entire international community for Belize’s sovereignty and territorial integrity to be respected. We have enough proof of our title to this territory, Guatemala has none.

12. What do you say to those who claim that they support going to the ICJ but not under Sedi Elrington?

When the matter goes to Court Mr. Elrington will not argue the case. The best international lawyers in the world will be arguing for Belize. We are choosing the ICJ to argue about the facts and the law. On that basis we have nothing to fear in the Court.

13. What if Guatemala refuses to respect the Court’s decision?

That is always a concern but we have strong insurance provisions for that. The Special Agreement already obliges Guatemala to accept and comply with the decision of the Court (Article 5). But it does not end there. The Special Agreement sets out the process for the full demarcation of the boundaries once the Court decides. If our neighbor refuses to abide by the Court’s decision we can take the matter to the UN Security Council. The Security Council is charged with ensuring that judgements of the ICJ are given effect (UN Charter Article 94(2). Also, over time all ICJ decisions on border disputes have been or are in the process of being implemented, especially those that are brought to the Court under a Special Agreement.

14. Isn’t it the case that by going to the ICJ Belize has everything to lose and Guatemala has nothing to lose?

No, that is not the case. We have the 1859 treaty, Guatemala does not recognize it. We declared our maritime areas, Guatemala does not recognize it. If we want to secure a future in peace for us and our children, we must agree precisely where are our shared borders lie.

Moreover, demographic shifts witnessed over the past decades suggest that problems with Guatemala will keep getting worse along our borders, not better. The extension of the agricultural frontiers will continue threatening our forests, and stretching the capabilities of our human and financial resources. It is in our interest to resolve the dispute arising from Guatemala’s claim before incidents on the ground worsen. Resolving the dispute will not make the problems go away but it will make it easier to deal with them.

Belize will gain international enforceable recognition for its borders and lose nothing except the fear of being violated. On the other hand, the ICJ will rule out Guatemala’s claim, which has been very useful to the elites in that country to distract its people from their own internal domestic problems.

15. Shouldn’t we wait till Guatemala starts behaving like a good neighbor before we consider going to the ICJ?

No. We need to go to the ICJ because historically Guatemala has not been a good neighbour. It claims our territory as hers and refuses to recognize the sanctity of the 1859 and 1931 treaties. That is why we must take them to Court. There would be no need for any of this if Guatemala behaved, say, like Mexico. Fortunately, Guatemala has finally agreed to go to Court to settle our differences. We must work with them on that. By waiting for Guatemala to do the right thing we would be doing exactly what they wish for us to do, i.e. let the problem fester.

6. What if Belizeans vote “No” to the ICJ?

If they vote “no” the claim will persist and Guatemala will become more assertive in pushing it. We would be in greater danger than ever before. When we go to the international community for help they would likely say, you asked for it so you deal with it.