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The Sarstoon Protocol – What it means and why Belizeans should care

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Posted: Thursday, February 28, 2019. 1:15 pm CST.

By Aaron Humes: In August of 2015, members of the Belize Territorial Volunteers planned a visit to Sarstoon Island, the mangrove-covered swampy territory near the mouth of the Sarstoon River that acts as a dividing line between Belize and Guatemala despite each claiming it.

            The visiting party was essentially taken hostage by members of the Guatemalan Armed Forces and transported to nearby Livingston over a weekend before being sent back home without charges.

            Ever since, the Government of Belize has had to walk a tight line between critics of its approach to managing travel on the river and Guatemala’s insistence that the river itself and all within it belongs to them.

            The first hints of a Sarstoon Protocol came from Prime Minister Dean Barrow, who shortly after the Livingston Incident announced plans for the militaries of both countries to meet and agree “on [a] modus vivendi – an operational protocol for the Sarstoon, on the basis that we insist on our midpoint channel boundary.” The B.T.V. had previously complained that the Belize Defence Force and Coast Guard were prevented from intervening on their side.

            Scrapping plans for a forward operating base on the island itself, the Government began construction of the FOB near Barranco, overlooking the river. But as the B.T.V. ramped up its travels along the river, the Government was forced to intervene with the signing of a dubious statutory instrument citing Section Two of the Public Safety Act which proposed to, quote, “prohibit persons and vessels, without lawful authority, from entering into Belize’s portion of the Sarstoon River,” for one month. At the same time both countries met in Istanbul, Turkey and then in Washington, D.C. trying to hammer out what was now described as a “cooperation mechanism.”

            But still stung from the death of a teenager in a Chiquibul Forest encounter with the B.D.F. and Friends for Conservation and Development patrol in April, Guatemala rejected the proposals enumerated by Minister Wilfred Elrington as follows. 1) ‘the channels of the Sarstoon River shall continue to be freely navigable by vessels and boats of each of the two countries without any interference or trailing by the other’. 2) ‘whenever any vessel of any one of the parties approaches the base of the other party or any other vessel, it shall reduce its speed as a token of respect and friendship and to avoid injury or damage to persons or property’. 3) ‘the law enforcement and armed forces of both party shall refrain from any threatening, abusive or unfriendly actions, words or behavior of any kind with respect to each other in and around the said river’. 4) ‘law enforcement and arm forces of both party shall respect the right of the citizens of each other to make lawful and environmentally sustainable use of the river for fishing and recreation. 5) ‘the parties shall cooperate to prevent or limit hazards and reduce and eliminate adverse consequences arising from floods, droughts and incidents involving substances hazardous to water’. 6) ‘the parties shall cooperate in the basis of sovereign equality, mutual benefit and good faith in order to promote and achieve the goals of this agreement. 7) ‘the parties shall cooperate in preventing and countering any illegal activities including drug trafficking, human trafficking, arm smuggling, contraband and other illegal activities of a transnational nature. And to this end, the parties may develop plans and conduct joint law enforcement and military patrols or operations including search and rescue which may include the participation of third countries’. 8) ‘the party shall cooperate to avoid incidents on the Sarstoon River conducive to tensions between them. In the event of such an incident, the party shall immediately communicate with one another to contain it, resolve it, and prevent its reoccurrence’. 9) ‘as a matter of courtesy and to promote good working relations, commanders assigned to the Sarstoon river may visit each other by mutual arrangement to discuss matters of mutual interest.’ 10) ‘the party shall, on a regular basis, exchange information, this includes an undertaking for any one party to inform the other party beforehand of any non-routine activity near the Sarstoon River. By mutual arrangement, the party shall install practical means of radio and other communication to facilitate these exchanges’. 11) ‘if a dispute arises between the parties as to the interpretation or implementation of this protocol, there shall seek as soon as reasonable, practicable to resolve the negotiation and should they fail to satisfactory resolve any such dispute, either of the parties may request the Secretary General of the OAS to use his good offices to propose a solution to the dispute and the other party hereby agrees to accept such offices and to comply in good faith with the recommendations of the Secretary General’.”

            Guatemala insisted that Belize had no control over the river or Sarstoon Island and its forces have consistently blocked entry to vessels from Belize, particularly those of the B.T.V., or shadowed them up the river, such as with the B.D.F., but have not resorted to violent means.

            Ever since the Barranco Incident in 2016, Govvernment has tried and failed to get Guatemala to the table to resolve the matter, and now for the most part there is a hands-off approach adopted by Belize. As explained by Minister of Defence (currently National Security) John Saldivar in December of 2016: “Belizeans also have free access to the Sarstoon however, due to Guatemala’s position with regards to sovereignty over the entire area our civilian are asked to check in at the Belize Forward Operating Base located by the mouth at the north of the river. Civilians may go in without being question or followed by GAF patrols to ensure they are not doing anything illegal or that the B.D.F. F.O.B. is aware of their presence in the area. We continue to exercise our sovereignty in the area by having our military patrolling and conducting operations along the river and our aircraft conducting air presence along the river. Our civilian interest groups are also able to conduct patrols in the river and may be questioned in the area and maybe questioned of their activities only and not to their legitimacy to being there. We do share the river with Guatemala.”

            B.T.V. leader Wil Maheia is equally as adamant. As he told this reporter in May of 2017 during a visit to the Sarstoon Island to mark the Livingston Incident: “First of all, there should be no protocol; the island belongs to us, half the river belongs to us; that was signed in the 1859 [Anglo-Guatemalan] Treaty. So I don’t know this protocol bull that they are talking about; there should be no protocol. The protocol was established in 1859, thirtieth of April, when Guatemala and England both agreed that the island belongs to us and half of the river belongs to us. This foolishness about protocol – I don’t know where the Foreign Minister gets this from, but the protocol was established in 1859.”

            And as for any impact on the claim, former Foreign Minister, historian and I.C.J. advocate Assad Shoman told Channel 7 News’ Jules Vasquez in January: “I’ve heard people say, lawyers, politicians of high repute say as long as Guatemala is behaving bad in the Sarstoon we should not go to court and I say because they are behaving bad we should go to court; because they are dishonorable we should go to court because we can’t trust them when they just sign a treaty, we can’t trust them if they sign an agreement but if they go to court and the court makes a determination, they have to comply with it because if they don’t, the security council can make them comply. All the judgements that have been made by the ICJ on territorial issues, all, are already complied with or in the process of being complied with. So they are behaving bad at the Sarstoon, all the more reason to go to court.” He further dismissed reports that the Guatemalans have constitutionally claimed they cannot abide by any I.C.J. decision.

            But after all this, there is no protocol and therefore nothing but the good will and forbearance of both sides to prevent a true international incident.

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