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ICJ Referendum: A Moratorium


Posted: Monday, February 4, 2019. 8:42 am CST.

Posted: Monday, February 4, 2019. 8:40 a.m. CST.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Breaking Belize News.

By   Dr.  Gerald Zuniga                       


Mariano Galvez University

It is not clear whether our intention of going to the ICJ is a referendum or a plebiscite ? What is a referendum? What is a plebiscite? Some schools of thought consider the words to be interchangeable. Others consider them to be different in usage and meaning.

What is a referendum?  Plu. referenda.

A referendum as defined on www.merriam-webster.com is the principle or practice of submitting to popular vote a measure passed on or proposed by a legislative body or popular initiative.

What is a plebiscite?

As defined in www.britannica.com, a plebiscite ” is a vote  by the people of an entire country or district to decide on some issue, such as the choice of a ruler or a government, option for independence or annexation by another power or a question of national policy.” A plebiscite is an important tool in participatory democracies but participatory democracies are now countable worldwide. Now it is easier to impose using the coercisive measures and entities of the state. However, a plebiscite could be binding and nonbinding. In a plebiscite, a government is not obliged to act upon the result rather accept as an advice.

This is a matter of sovereignty so ideally it should be compulsory or least absolute majority and the same it should have been in Guatemala more so that they are the ones claiming or having a dispute over Belize and that their Constitution talks about a referendum to solve the dispute.

After making the necessary analysis including an intuition of political moments nationally, regionally and on the world stage like the events unfolding with Brexit, like Mr. Eamon Courtney, Louis Wade Jr., Mr. Lindsay Belisle, Mr. Troy Gabb, among may others,  I myself,  as a  Belizean citizen by birth with ancestry rooted for more than 200 years, in exercise of my political, civil, and human rights, humbly and solemnly request from our Prime Minister  Hon. Dean Oliver Barrow a moratorium on this April 10th, 2019 referendum. This referendum call has placed our citizenry into a state of shock and need to be resuscitated and the only way to do so is thru education and participation. There were negotiations between the parties, whom acted largely on behalf of governments than their states, that the citizenry was not informed of. Neither were there assurances that the legal pathways being undergone both here in Belize and  in Guatemala.

Here are some reasons for my request for a moratorium as I stated in a previous article.

  1. Guatemala claims over Belize has been more political than legal and filled with a high dosage of caprichosness but we legitimized the process by poor negotiations practiced by weak negotiation teams and strategy for years who seemingly were overwhelmed by the Guatemalan counterpart. Language is very important in negotiations. Language barrier can indeed create a barrier. However, our legitimization of the claim didn’t go thru the due process and violates both our Constitution and the Guatemalan’s. Hence, the process and the call for referenda is illegal in both countries based on their respective constitutional suprastructure.  Whatever was negotiated should have been presented to the House of Representatives here as a Bill, whom were granted the mandate to represent the interest of their respective constituency in the last general election and ratified by the House of Senate. Guatemala’s Congress should have also done the same and that could have overridden Art. 19 Transitory in their Constitution. It was not done. So the Special Agreement  is nulo ipse jure or null and void. The Consitution of Belize in Chapter 1 Art.2 states that “This Constitution is the supreme law of Belize and if any is inconsistent with this Constitution that other law shall, to the extent of the inconsistency, be void.”

The question is,  is the Governor General, Dr. Colville Young, as the Head of State, exercising the power bestowed on him by our Constitution in representation of her Majesty The Queen. Our Constitution continues by saying ‘Where as the People of  Belize require policies of state which protect and safeguard the unity, freedom, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Belize.”  Going to the ICJ if the majority votes yes, we will be renouncing our sovereignty because we would be granting jurisdiction to the ICJ but more so our territorial integrity because of the question formulated, contrary to the stipulation and spirit of our Constitution.

There is widespread usage of the phrase”of Guatemala’s unfounded claim”.This has to be clarified. It is important for you to kniw that only a court could rule that the claim is unfounded. Such ruling has not happened. Also, the fact that Guatemala has a claim because they considerit to be founded.  That is precisely what we should ask the ICJ. Is Guatemala’s claim over Belize or part of Belize founded? There is where they would use the principles of international public law to rule if the claim is founded or not? Then if they rule that the claim is founded but only after exhausting negotiation and the authorization of the House of Representatives and Senate thru a Bill we grant judisdiction to the ICJ to the solve the claim. Hence a moratorium of 10 years at minimum. We cou Guatemala’s restriction of free transit on the Sarstoon River founded? Such practice is in frank violation of internaltional public law because what is observed internationally  is that a river when a river forms the boundary of two nations, the river is of mutual benefit and no expressed protocol is used rather the principles of international relations.

I will not expound on the 1859 Boundary Treaty nor on the so unpopular Adjacency Zone. Those have  been expounded on by the media and other means. The risk of incursions that they argue about, however, is absurd. Not even the United States of America being a wotld power has been able defend  and secure their borde especially the southern borderr from incursions and invasions. They need the help of a wall. But theirs is thousands of miles. Our is a little over a hundred ehich our defense should be able to protect granted the resources. So the argument of incursion is naive. With all fairness to Guatemala, the incursions at our borders are not institutionalized, with the  exception of the occupation of the Sarstoon River including its island. Those incursions are by rouge individuals on their quest for economic satisfaction. They even invade their own reserved area like the Mayan Biosphere in Peten.  Do you react when something happen to your citizens. Yes! It is the duty of a state to protect the life and human rights of her citizens. That is what a state is organized for. Do Guatemala use it for their political benefits and even exaggerate? Yes! Those are strategies used in international relations and human beings are human beings. See what happens between Israel and the Palestinian Territory, a very good example.

  1. The nation of Belize is young and fragile, only 37 years years old. When you are young, you don’t go to mature peoples party. So the minimum we can do is visibilization. How can we go about with our visibilization process. It is important to internationalize the matter. We need to let the world know about this dispute. This is not a matter of a territory. It is a matter of a nation and a nation is a state with its people and territory and whose human rights could be violated. Belize in 2019 is not the Belize of 1859. We need to educate our nation on the matter objectively. It is not us claiming Guatemala. It is the contrary. So our strategies in our foreign policies and international relations should reflex such.The world needs to know about us. This referendum shouldn’t pretended to be a government type election, neither a mandate.The outcome could be far reaching. Let us try to play the game right with the right equipments, players, and strategies. We can’t afford to lose this game. We only have 8,867sq. miles that our forefathers bravely protected and cherished.  Will the coming generations be able to say the same about us?
  2. The Belizeans in the diaspora should be invited to participate.That is our leaders moral responsibility and obligation with them. That is also a recompense of their remittances which plays in an important role in our unjustifiably weak economy. There are ample technologies for this to be a reality, if there is the political will. Allowing the Central American nationalized recently to vote is very risky based on the navel string phenomenon and even subconscious identity matters that could impact the results of the referendum.
  3. With Art. 19 Transitory in Guatemala’s Constitution it is in vain going to the ICJ, if the majority vote yes. This is because the resolutions from the ICJ are not binding and that such resolution if we go there, must be presented to the Guatemalan in another referendum according to their constitution based on that same Art. 19. Who will finance that referendum? Are these friend countries aware of that constitutional predisposition? The derogation of such article by Guatemala’s House of Congress, which is the only institution that can do it, should be tanamount to even considering  going to the ICJ. This move to the ICJ could be waste of resources in the millions of dollars. Guatemala’s referendum was already around $80,000,000USD. Our may be around $5,000,000,USD. A money yearned by infrastructure, job creation, health and our education system, etc.
  4. The resolution from the ICJ is not binding and with Art. 19 Transitory in Guatemala’s Constitution make it shaky than firm. Say hypothetically the UN Peace Force or Stabilization Mission (MONUSCO) is asked to reinforce the resolution, Guatemala had been a part of such mission both in Haiti and the Democratic Republic of Congo for years. About 14 missions were sent to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Guatemala has important diplomats with influence on the Security Council. Wouldn’t there be an influence? Wouldn’t it be like the rat watching over the cheese?
  5. The Guatemala/Belize Dispute had already been resolved. It was resolved in 1992 by Expresident Jorge Serrano Ellias and was executed by his foreign minister at the time Alvaro Arzu Irigoyen who also became President of Guatemala from 1996 – 2000. Mr. Arzu died last year. According to Guatemala’s Constitution Art.183 Paragraph O which states It is the faculty of the President ” To direct the foreign policies and international relations;; celebrate, ratify, and denounce treaties and agreements in conformity with this Constitution.” Their constitution is clear. Foreign affairs is perrogative of the presidency so Expresident Jorge Serrano Ellias executed his constitutional rights. Hence, Guatemala established diplomatic ties with Belize since diplomatic ties are established with states and states must have a recognized boundary which is also paramount of beginning a member of the United Nations. We lost a precious moment to follow up with the action taken by Jorge Serrano, who didn’t finish his presidency because he usurpated functions not conferred to him by their Constitution and the Constitutional Court of which Mr. Epaminondas Gonzalez was the president ruled that he be dismissed from the Presidency. A court ruling executed by the General Otto Perez Molina whom later become president himself.That recognition should have been or should be challenged at court. That is what should be taken to the ICJ if so be the case. I may clarify that Jorge Serrano Elias’ removal from office had nothing to do with his recognition of the State of Belize rather it was because he was tired of the party chaos in the House of Congress which was filled with political actors who wouldn’t allow him to govern.
  6. There is what is called in politics: political moment. It is a special moment normally of political benefits based on political events and mass psychology. Mr. Jimmy Morales, President of Guatemala must handover executive power on January 14th, 2020 at 2pm. but his government is one of the least popular in Guatemala’s recent political history. Though legal, his government is delegitimized. Their referendum reflected such. Added to that, the unpopular and illegal move according to Guatemala’s Constitutional Court of Morales’ breached of agreement with the United Nation on the CICIG Program. Is this a sign that a possible resolution from ICJ wouldn’t be respected? We might say that he will leave office in less than a year. However, there is a history of such breaches. In 1996, they signed a peace agreement with the guerillas and to date the agreements are not honored. However, there is a possible continuation of hostile actions towards Belize officiated by Carlos Raúl Morales, Guatemala’s ex-foreign minister because he could be the candidate for vice presidency with Sandra Torres of the UNE party, who has a high chance of winning. An inference based on Guatemala’s electoral history after it refounded its state since 1984.
  7. Do we have leverage in a renegotiation if granted a moratorium or a no win in the referendum? Yes! We need to design a specialized fully bilingual team versed on Guatemala’s politics, affairs, history and law and with a resolution of conflicts skill. This is not a matter of international law only. Priniples of international relations must be exercised. The principles of international public laws could eventually be used if we fail. The resolution of this dispute is more political than legal to assure our territorial integrity. That is my humble point of view. In all civilized societies, the court is the last resource for the resolution of conflicts. We are seeing a trending in the opposite direction because of poor negotiating skills, economic gain, prides, and egoes. However, a state territory is not a private matter. It is of public domain. Hence, the approach should be well analyzed and approached. We are neighbours and we should be in good terms. Guatemala has a positive balance of  payment with  Belize and such is very important for their economy. Also, as I always say any disaster here in Belize, Guatemala could be the first. to jump in before any Caricom nation. We are only a few mile aparts.We need each other. Belize should negotiate with Guatemala a dry canal to foster trade. Such canal could benefit Campeche, Yucatan, and Quintana Roo in Mexico. The distance from Guatemala’s Pacific ports to Belize is a matter of hours and goods would  reach Chetumal, Cancun, etc in a matter of hours than  days or weeks when ships have to continue their journey to Mexico’s Pacific ports then the goods are transported hundreds or thousands of miles to Mexico’s fast growing market on its Caribbean Coast namely the Riviera Maya. This could be a source of income to us. Our broder line then could be used  to contruct a modern highway for this purpose and we would be exercising sovereignty and occupancy.

The majority of Guatemalans consider us as their neighbour. It was reflected in their referendum which result I still don’t see the statistical explanation for us to even hold a referendum. ” Belice es nuestro vecino” is more institutionalized than “Belice es nuestro.”. For more than 25 years, the Belice es nuestro” is deinstitutionalized.  Yes, it was used  in the early 90’s and before as a political gimmick. However, the political candidates  never presented a plan to their natiion on how to resolve the matter. Proof of it, Belize  had not been a part of their map until late last year that they want to resurge it. Who would occasionally express his opinion on the Guatemala’s claim over Belize in the press was the late Juan Francisco Reyes Lopez, who was vice president of Alfonso Portillo Cabrera government of the FRG from January 14th, 2000  –  January 14th, 2004 He died on January 10th.

As I said earlier, I don’t see the need for us even to hold a referendum considering that only 26.65% of the registered voters in Guatemala voted on a matter of national interest. It is true that you never get 100% turn out in a democracy in a voting process but 26.65% of the total is not statistically significant for a matter of national interest. The minimum that should have been accepted should have been at least 51% of the total number of turn outs. We also made amendments to Section 5A of the Referendum Amendment Act 2017 which states, “For greater certainty, it is declared that the matter or issue submitted to a referendum shall be decided by a simple majority of the vote cast.” But what is more intriguing is the issue that if there is a no vote win  on the referendum, another referendum could be conducted six months later till a yes to the ICJ previals.(Source: www.wikipedia.org/2018 Guatemalan territorial dispute referendum)

I still believe that we have patriots. The luscious and most beautiful part of Belize without hurting susceptibilities, could be at stake. We need to convert this game to a chess game and we are intelligent enough to win. But to win we need to be prepared.

I tried to put emotions aside and instead used the tools of political science to write this article.

Thanks for reading.

Dr.  Gerald Zuniga

Studies in Political Science

School of Political Science

San Carlos Univsersity


Mariano Galvez University

Guatemala City


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