Monday, February 16, 2009

A view on the ‘COMPROMIS’ Between Belize and Guatemala

Frank Edward Paco Smith, Jr. (JP)

My time spent at SALISES (Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies) has left an indelible imprint. As a proud graduate (MSc. Governance and Public Policy -- 2007) I have drawn upon the many lessons learned from that gruelling, yet marvellous experience at the Mona Campus. My instructors not only introduced me to interesting concepts such as good governance, globalisation, decentralisation and citizen participation; more importantly they challenged me to employ a critical eye toward the myriad issues which permeate our global reality. While I continue to hone my skills toward analyzing matters which affect the Caribbean and the world at-large, I wish to share a matter of territorial concerns which impact my home, Belize.

Many in the wider Caribbean may not be aware of pressing territorial matters which affect the handful of land-based Caribbean territories such as Belize (formerly British Honduras). With the exception of three, possibly four CARICOM Member States, such terrestrial issues are not a reality. Nonetheless for Belize, these are issues of national interest/security and is virtually part of our genetic make-up.

Since time immemorial, Belize’s neighbour to the West, Guatemala, has asserted a claim on Belizean territory. The land which currently comprises Belizean territory can be referred back to June 7th, 1494, when the Treaty of Todesillas was signed, and the “New World” was apportioned between Spain and Portugal. The arguments in defence of the claim have taken a variety of forms over the centuries and the counter-arguments have (for the most part) remained consistent.

The Battle of St. George’s Caye, September 10th, 1798, is a source of pride for many Belizeans. In fact it is a national holiday commemorating the defeat of Spanish forces, by the territory’s inhabitants. Amidst numerous occurrences over the years, the Clayton Bulwer Treaty of 1850 acknowledged the legitimacy of British Honduras. The 19th century saw numerous engagements between the Governments of Guatemala, the United Kingdom to resolve the former’s unfounded claim.

Fast-forward to the late 20th & early 21st century and there are many significant developments including: Guatemala’s assertion of the “Belice es nuestra” (Belize is ours) doctrine; several aggressive military mobilisations by Guatemala threatening invasion (1972, 1975 & 1978); Belize’s Independence (1981); the issuance of a defence arrangement from the British and its subsequent end in 1994; numerous stalled and failed talks between Belize and Guatemala; Belize’s continued attempts to facilitate Guatemala (such as the passage of the Maritime Areas Act in 1992) and the adoption of a Guatemalan strategy of encouraging the illegal encroachment of its citizens onto Belizean territory. The latest round of diplomatic efforts involved an attempt at mediation by the Organisation of American States (OAS). This led to the current initiative – the December 8th, 2008 signing of a Special Agreement or Compromis between the Government of Belize (GOB) and the Government of Guatemala, which sets the framework for this issue to be decided at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Diplomats worldwide have touted this as an outstanding step toward settling the age-old dispute and eventually normalising relations between the two countries. Although, on the surface, the recent decision may appear laudable, I take a more realistic view. The decision of the GOB to potentially seek adjudication via the ICJ is too risky and quite frankly unnecessary. I have heard the wide range of arguments on both sides and think there may be more to this scenario than meets the eye!

Being a proud Belizean who upholds the nation’s Constitution as the supreme law of the land I believe the aforementioned decision to sign the Compromis is tantamount to an affront to Belize’s Constitution. Within certain circles it has even been likened to an act of treason! I recognise the importance of diplomacy and advocate no other approach, yet given the relevant history, diplomatic efforts on the part of Belize have abounded, despite marked and repeated intransigence on the part of Guatemala. Pundits like to refer to “the Guatemala question”. In my humble opinion there is no question, where Guatemala is concerned. The matter is straightforward, for Belize is: (1) a sovereign nation, (2) a legitimate member of the international community and (3) a full member of the United Nations -- WITH ITS INTERNATIONAL BORDERS INTACT! To buttress my opinion, I draw upon successive UN Resolutions beginning in 1975 which affirmed Belize’s right to secure its independence with all its territory. The 1975 Resolution further pronounced that any proposals emerging from negotiations between the two countries must respect this right. For five successive sittings of the General Assembly, this position was reinforced, eventually leading to Belize’s independence.

Although the diplomatic community has lauded the Compromis, I believe the Government of Belize acted in a risky and short-sighted manner. I hold this position because by singing the Compromis, the GOB may be considered to have given credence to the possibility that Guatemala’s claim has enough merit, to warrant it potentially being taken to the International Court of Justice (CJ), despite the long-standing legitimate recognition of Belize by the world community. This, for Belize and all Belizeans, is a terrible mistake. Such actions have potentially weakened Belize’s position in this matter of unparalleled national significance. Diplomacy can be engaged in, conducted and successfully concluded, via degrees and I believe that Belize’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has lost sight of this.

I welcome a final settlement, via diplomatic means. Yet, given the context I draw upon the counsel imparted to me by my parents, “…nothing in this life is guaranteed, save for the fact that one day we must all expire”. While entrusting the matter to the ICJ, we must remember that whatever the decision, it is final. This is entirely too risky for Belize! I am not comfortable placing the fate of Belize in the hands of the learned individuals who serve on the ICJ, no matter how strong Belize’s case may appear. Belize has too much to lose in this process while Guatemala only stands to lose their unfounded claim. Placed on the proverbial scale, an unfavourable decision for Belize could very well mean a loss of already scarce territory. Let us not forget that with the recent growth in oil exploration in Belize, various untapped resources of prospective economic viability could potentially be forever lost. Honestly, who do you think potentially stands to lose more, by going the route of the ICJ?

I believe in the basic tenets of good governance. Therefore, I understand that the recent signing is but the initial step in a process. Although I am utterly disgusted with the decision to explore this route, I rejoice that Belizeans will be afforded a say in whether or not to proceed. Therein lies the intrinsic challenge. Persistent societal ills such as voter apathy, the lack of civic pride, the ever-declining levels of citizen participation and outright ignorance of the matter at hand, must be overcome. That is why it is imperative that those who share my view concerning the unmitigated risks to Belize, must become constructively proactive toward addressing the issue. Belizeans from all walks of life, especially civil society, must concertedly embark on a public information campaign which clearly analyses the issue in its entirety. Without such an effort Belizeans could potentially go to the poles, in a referendum, with less-than-adequate information with which to make an informed decision. That is if we even opt to participate in the process!

I alluded to the possibility that there may be more to all this than meets the eye. I cast no aspersions, but faithfully hope that those who have been entrusted with the honour of governing Belize’s affairs in a responsible manner are not engaged in what could potentially amount to an extremely high stakes endeavour of international proportions, simply for political gain. I admit the position regarding this observation is speculative, but whenever the human element is factored into such an equation, there exists the possibility that the motivation toward solidifying some form of legacy, could very well be at the core of this effort. Recently, elements of the local press reported that certain high ranking government officials have made unfortunate remarks which insinuate that if Belizeans don’t go the route of the ICJ, we should then be prepared to “take up arms”. Such rhetoric is regrettable, irresponsible and grossly misleading. Hence, my position that Belize’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has seemingly lost sight of the fact that diplomacy, devoid of ego, is the most tenable route toward success.

I call on Belize’s civil society to awake from its perpetual slumber and apply critical analysis to the overall issue by: (1) establishing whether Belize’s Constitution is the supreme law of the land, (2) determining whether the international recognition of our nation-state is of any consequence, (3) deciding whether the associated risks of entering this Compromis are minimal enough to warrant placing Belize’s territorial integrity in the hands of the jurisprudence of the ICJ and (5) ultimately take proactive steps to educate the general public. Belizeans must become aware of what precisely is at stake and make an informed decision.
For me, Belize’s Constitution takes precedence in all matters relating to its territorial integrity and sovereignty. The associated risks are too great to undertake the ultimate course of action set in play through the signing of the Compromis. Finally, Belize’s current existence is already, legally, recognised by the international community.

Long live Belize in its, current, legal and geographic legitimacy!