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Ex-Belize ambassador Joel Nagel predicts financial damages for Guatemala, not land, in ICJ dispute

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Posted: Thursday, April 22, 2021. 4:00 pm CST.

By Aaron Humes: Attorney and former Belize Ambassador to Austria, Joel Nagel, has predicted that Belize will keep its territory when the International Court of Justice (ICJ) finally rules on the dispute a few years from now.

“The prevailing view among legal experts around the world is that the court will overwhelmingly reject Guatemala’s demands and, at most, will award it financial damages for the promised railway line that it never received from the British,” Nagel concluded his article for International Policy Digest.

Nagel states that Belize’s arguments before the court are “more in sync with contemporary political and diplomatic norms;” the right to self-determination, the radical difference between the countries’ national and cultural identity and the fact that only the British can be held accountable for that broken promise of a railway line between the countries. Guatemala’s arguments, he contended, are about the rights consigned by the Pope 400 years ago to Spain and Britain’s failure to build a railway line 150 years ago.

Uniquely, says Nagel, Guatemala is attempting to absorb a neighbour recognized by most countries of the world and a member state of the United Nations; this differs from disputes involving local populations seeking secession or two countries claiming the same territory as with Guyana and Venezuela, or Russia and Ukraine over the Crimean Peninsula. “The substantive difference with Guatemala’s demand is that it is seeking to cease the existence of Belize as an independent state—a move that veers far from the course of legal norms in modern-day global politics,” Nagel notes.

After finally persuading Guatemala to take the case to the Hague, the case was filed after successful referenda in both countries within a year of each other, followed by Guatemala filing its first memorial in December.

Belize has until June 2022 to file its responding memorial, in which it will present its arguments as to why it believes it should be allowed to remain a sovereign, independent state. Guatemala will then have an opportunity to respond to Belize’s memorial with a “rejoinder,” and Belize will then have its turn to respond to that rejoinder with a rejoinder of its own. After the parties have exhausted their legal motions, the judges presiding over the case in the International Court of Justice will deliberate and render their ruling. 

Nagel, based in San Pedro Town by way of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, served as Belize’s Ambassador to Austria from 2015 until his expulsion in 2017 for still undefined improper conduct by that country’s government.

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