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Understanding ICJ jurisdiction in relation to Belize-Guatemala territorial dispute

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Posted: Thursday, February 7, 2019. 9:25 pm CST.

By BBN Staff: Belizeans countrywide are counting down to Decision day 2019, when Belizeans will vote in favor of or against taking Guatemala’s long standing dispute on Belize’s territory to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for final adjudication.

The ICJ is the principal judicial organ of the United Nations (UN), where countries with disputed territories and maritime areas submit their claims for adjudication.

But, what confers jurisdiction to the court to enable its 15 judges and 2 ad-hoc judges to hear this specific case?

There are several ways that countries grant jurisdiction to the ICJ for a dispute to be settled.

In the case of Belize and Guatemala, both countries signed onto a special agreement in 2008.

The Special Agreement offers consent of jurisdiction to the ICJ (after a national referendum is held in their countries as stated in their country’s constitution) and states that the countries agree for the ICJ to determine finally and settle ‘ANY’ and ‘ALL’ legal claims of Guatemala against Belize relating to land, insular and maritime territories.

Special agreement: Article 2

“The Parties request the Court to determine in accordance with applicable rules of international law as specified in Article 38(1) of the Statute of the Court any and all legal claims of Guatemala against Belize to land and insular territories and to any maritime areas pertaining to these territories, to declare the rights therein of both Parties, and to determine the boundaries between their respective territories and areas.”

According to an International Law expert, the purpose of a Special Agreement between two states that have a dispute is to define in specific terms the dispute that they want to be settled at court and give consent to the jurisdiction of the court.

However, countries are allowed to make reservations on cases. This means that countries can agree to adjudication on parts of the claim and not in its totality. For example, a country can agree to have the boundary or access of insular or maritime areas disputed but not territorial areas.

Since Belize and Guatemala signed onto the special agreement in 2008, the court would treat both countries as applicant states.

A Special Agreement is necessary between countries because if a country takes up an issue at the ICJ without the consent of the other country, after an ICJ ruling is decided upon, the country can refuse to accept the ruling with the reason that it never agreed for the matter to go to the courts. Countries can then contest the jurisdiction of the court.

Special agreements also construe the concise portion of a claim that countries want adjudicated, it explains the dispute clearly and the court will then deal only with that case.

One of the many questions that Belizeans have is in relation to the enforcement of the ICJ ruling.

In an interview with BBN, an expert explained that an enforcement mechanism is absent at the ICJ. Countries that do not abide by the ruling can be taken to the United Nations Security Council. The UN’s Security Council will then decide on the appropriate measures to be taken to give effect to the ruling of the ICJ, among the many measures are economic sanctions.


But, there is also another role that the ICJ plays and that is offering advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it. The process for requesting an advisory opinion begins with a country making a request from the United Nations General Assembly. The matter would then be voted on as a resolution by the General Assembly.  An advisory opinion is not binding but normally countries abide by the advice given.

The ICJ offers all legal opinions and judgements based on international treaties and conventions, international customs and the general principles of law.

Guatemala held its national referendum in 2018 and voted ‘Yes’.

Belize will host its national referendum on April 10, 2019.

Seventy states have signed unto the ICJ’s statute, respecting the court’s jurisdiction.

Belizeans will make their decision on April 10, 2019 at the historic national referendum that will determine whether or not the claim will be taken to the ICJ for a final solution.

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