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An inside look at Professor Vasciannie’s Legal Opinion on Belize/Guatemala territorial dispute 

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Posted: Friday, March 8, 2019. 6:02 pm CST.

By Aaron Humes: Expert on international law, Jamaican former UWI Professor Stephen Vasciannie, in a 52-page opinion produced on February 27, 2019 for the Bar Association of Belize, presents what he calls the “strongest case” for a Belize-Guatemala tilt at the International Court of Justice pending the result of the April tenth referendum.

   Professor Vasciannie states that this case would include some, if not all, of the following:

  1. Great Britain’s occupation of the territory of what is now Belize started in the seventeenth century and crystallized of right in 1821;
  2. The concept of uti possedetis juriswould not apply to future Belizean territory under the control of the British as Guatemala cannot show title to that which it is claiming;
  3. If title to the area is uncertain either because of a lack of boundary or competing claims between Britain and Guatemala, the court would turn to the effectivities of the area under consideration, and he finds that Britain exercised effective control and jurisdiction over the Belize Territory whereas Guatemala showed no evidence of doing so;
  4. The 1859 Anglo-Guatemalan Treaty was a boundary treaty, not one of cession, and the provision in Article One was not quid pro quo for the Article Seven provision on a cart road or river transport;
  5. Since Article Seven of the Treaty failed, Guatemala may have had the option to terminate it, but did not do so for about 60 years. In any event it would apply only to the United Kingdom, successor to Great Britain, but not to Belize as successor to British Honduras and the Belize Territory;
  6. Alternatively, if Guatemala’s denunciation of the Treaty in 1940 is accepted, the Article Seven provision no longer applies and the boundary delineated in Article One survives;
  7. Belize’s right to self-determination, independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity was affirmed by the United Nations in 1980 by resolution and still stands (Guatemala was the sole opponent.)

Concerning weaknesses in the case, Vasciannie addresses the possibility of a monetary or other settlement to satisfy Article Seven; determining the exact time Britain gained title to the Belize Territory; the lack of extant documentation of the issue and the paradox that two post-colonial states will be arguing their cases based on the action or inaction of their parent states.

   On the separate but related matter of activities in the Sarstoon, Vasciannie opines that the Guatemalan Armed Forces are explicitly violating international law by not recognizing Belize’s boundaries under Article One of the 1859 Treaty. But he notes that Guatemala may have an ulterior motive – to seize effective control as a basis for title to territory. But he concludes: “As long as Belize protests and repeats its protests frequently and widely, there will be no change in the legal status of the areas in question in favor of Guatemala.”

   Apart from releasing the opinion widely, the Association has offered no comment. It plans to hold a public forum where they will discuss the legal issues raised in the opinion which looked at the strengths and weaknesses of Belize’s case at a later date.

 

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