Guatemala votes YES to ICJ Print E-mail
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Thursday, 19 April 2018 00:00

Guatemalans have voted decisively in their national referendum to take the territorial claim to Belize to the International Court of Justice.

After months a national education campaign, reportedly costing the Guatemalan Government over 10 million quetzales, Guatemalan’s citizens from all over the country spent the entire day on Sunday, April 15,  casting their vote on whether or not to take their claim to the ICJ.

The exact question put to the Guatemalan Citizens 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 for final settlement and that it determines finally the boundaries of the respective territories and areas of the parties?”

They were given two options on the ballots: “Si o No”, and in the next few months, Belizeans will have to answer this very same question in a referendum which will be held here as well.

The entire population of Guatemala is estimated at over 16.7 million, but the number of registered voters who could have voted in the referendum is only 7.522 million. The referendum was overseen by Guatemala’s Tribunal Supremo Electoral (TSE) - or the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, which is equivalent to the Elections and Boundaries Department in Belize. It’s president holds similar powers to that of our Chief Elections Officer. After 12 hours of polling time, the TSE tally says that only 1.985 million registered voters, or 26% of the total amount of voters, actually came out and participated in the election. 5.536 million voters abstained, which has caused some Belizeans to question the results. Of that 1.935 million votes, 95% said “yes” to taking the claim to the ICJ, and that means that it is a perfectly valid and binding referendum result.

In a press conference to announce the end of the vote tally, Maria Eugenia Mijangos Martinez stated, “At the end of this long civic day, we have a lot to be grateful for. We have carried forward this commission progress, whereby the people of Guatemala have responded beyond our expectations.”

Carlos Raul Morales, the Former Guatemala Foreign Minister, spoke with the Belizean press in Guatemala City, and as one of the leading figures in the ICJ public awareness campaign, he was very pleased with the outcome.

Morales said, “It is a clear message of the Guatemalan people that we want peace. This is for me the most important message…”

But, there were clear indications that not all Guatemalans were properly informed going into the referendum. Some of them were wrongly under the impression that if they voted yes on the ballot, it meant that it was like some first step to getting back Belize under Guatemalan control.

When questioned about the referendum, one interviewee said, “I will vote yes so we can get back Belize.”

?Another said, “I don’t know why they sold Belize. Belize is ours.”

Still another Guatemalan national admitted, “Unfortunately, there have been a lot of confusion. The people think, like I said again, they think that its to recover Belize, which is not the case. It is to establish borders. But, many people believe that it is for that.”

But, whether the Guatemalans were misled to vote yes, the reality is that it doesn’t matter. They have said yes, and so Belizeans will have to decide what they want to do.

The Belize Government has congratulated the Guatemalans for finally carrying out the referendum, after postponing 3 times in about 4 years.

A press release from Monday, April 16, said, “The Government of Belize avails of the opportunity to congratulate the Government and people of the Republic of Guatemala for conducting its referendum on April 15, 2018 on the question of going to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), in accordance with the Special Agreement of 2008.The Government acknowledges the results as a step further toward permanently settling the age-old dispute. This act of civic expression in Guatemala was conducted smoothly and efficiently in a way that contributes further to the strengthening of democracy, peace and security in Guatemala as well as in the region.”

Readers are well aware that Guatemala’s territorial claim to Belize dates back to the 1800’s, and they have rejected the famous 1859 treaty between the republic of Guatemala and Britain. This treaty clearly demarcates Belize’s boundaries. It was signed and agreed upon by both sides, but because Britain did not build a cart road from Guatemala to Punta Gorda Town, which was an element of that treaty, Guatemala has used this fact to justify why the treaty, from their perspective, is not valid. Guatemala’s claim to Belize says that they own half of the country, which is recognized on many different maps as belonging to Belize.

Despite their repudiation, Belize disagrees and maintains the position that this treaty is still in full force, means all of Belize’s boundaries, set out in that treaty, still stand. So, for Belizeans, this dispute is inherited from the colonial government, from which we got our independence.

So, Sunday’s referendum is historic in that it could actually become a lasting solution between the 2 nations. But, it took over 9 years for it to actually take place. The Governments both Belize and Guatemala signed the Special Agreement to take the territorial dispute to the ICJ, subject to the will of the 2 populations, back in December 2008. That plan is only now coming to fruition.

Best information suggests that the Belize Government will set a date for the referendum here some time early next year, after the voter re-registration exercise is carried out.