In an effort to prevent further confrontations between Belize and Guatemala armed forces and civilians, the Government of Belize (GOB) has implemented a temporary restriction on movement in Belize’s portion of the Sarstoon River. The restriction was announced on Friday, April 29th and is to last for one month. While GOB claims the restriction is being done to safeguard the Belizean populace, many are not happy about it. Among those protesting the restriction are the Belize Territorial Volunteers (BTV) who were stopped from conducting an expedition to Sarstoon Island this past weekend.
According to GOB, after consulting with the Prime Minister Right Honorable Dean Barrow, His Excellency the Governor General of Belize made the regulation under Section 2 of the Public Safety Act, Chapter 142 of the Substantive Laws of Belize, RE 2011. “The regulations prohibit persons and vessels, without lawful authority, from entering into Belize’s portion of the Sarstoon River. The regulations take effect from today and the restrictions will remain in force for one month…government advises that this course of action has become necessary in order to prevent any ‘commotion’ or ‘threat to public safety’ that might arise in consequence of the continuing tense and dangerous standoff between Belize and Guatemala over the Sarstoon, and the tipping point that could be caused by the unregulated insertion of members of the Belizean public into this very volatile mix,” explained GOB in a press release.
Due to the restriction, the BTV’s scheduled expedition to the border at the mouth of the Sarstoon River on Saturday, April 30th was stopped by Belizean law enforcement agents. GOB’s move is not going over so well with most Belizeans, and the restriction law has even been challenged by the People’s United Party (PUP). “The National Executive has considered and has approved the following: (1) The PUP, on behalf of the Belizeans demands that the government immediately rescind the unjust Sarstoon law; (2) That the PUP recognizes that despite assurances given to the Leader of the Opposition and the PUP to address the unfounded Guatemala claim in a united national effort, the government has effectively suspended this national effort by its unilateral actions; (3) That the legal Advisor of the PUP is instructed to file a constitutional challenge to the Sarstoon Law; (4) That the National Executive and Parliamentary Caucus has decided to challenge the Sarstoon Law by going to the Sarstoon; (5) That the PUP is launching a national campaign of LIBERATION OF THE SARSTOON AND RESISTANCE TO THE SARSTOON LAW – and invite Churches, Unions, the Business Community, Civil Society, Community Groups and other political parties to join in this patriotic effort,” said Leader of the Opposition, Honorable John Briceño.
But the PUP is not the only group protesting the restriction, Citizens Organized for Liberty through Action (COLA) and the Belize Progressive Party (BPP) have also voiced their opinions. “That law against the movement, if anyone had ill views of the government and how they have been handling, this situation shows that this government is more concerned in yielding to Guatemala’s unfounded claim. We believe that this law is unconstitutional, it is a symbol of cowardice and it is a symbol of lack of faith and hope, that is what we think of that law,” said President of COLA, Giovanni Bracket. BPP Party Leader Patrick Rogers shared similar sentiments. “All is not lost Belize, we are taking the lime that they are giving us and we will make lemonade because what they have effectively done is reassert sovereignty over the northern section of the Sarstoon now by passing this law to restrict us going there for thirty days and over the thirty, we need to mount a constitutional challenge based on discrimination if Guatemalan fisher folks are being seen in the northern side of the Sarstoon or worst the Guatemalan armed forces,” said Rogers.
In an attempt to clarify the situation, Barrow held a press conference on Tuesday, May 3rd to reiterate the importance of solving the dispute through diplomatic means. “Government is in no doubt that it was the right thing to do. We made clear, that our actions were one-off. The Regulation will remain in force for only one month, during which time we redouble our efforts to secure a guarantee regarding the Sarstoon. If those efforts do not succeed, then all bets are off. We will not again stop the BTV from going to that portion of the Sarstoon that belongs to Belize. And our ownership, as recognized and demarcated by the 1859 Treaty, can never be in doubt. In the normal course, therefore, all Belizeans have a perfect right to traverse our half of the Sarstoon. And, in fact, the very prohibition that we passed in these one-time, exceptional circumstances, is predicated on Belize’s sovereignty and jurisdiction over our share of the Sarstoon,” said Barrow.
Barrow also touched on the support Belize has received from the international community during these troubled times. “You are all aware of last week’s Resolution of the 79 African, Caribbean and Pacific states (ACP) in support of Belize’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The Commonwealth Secretary-General, Baroness Scotland, was also very forthright in reiterating her organization’s position that Guatemala must respect our 1859 borders. Baroness Scotland will now convene a meeting of the Commonwealth Standing Committee on Belize so that they might step up their monitoring of the Belize/Guatemala situation. And on Friday in Freeport, Bahamas, our Foreign Minister got support for us from CARICOM and the UK.”
On the other hand, President of Guatemala Jimmy Morales has stated that his government is placing a permanent increase of military personnel at the border between Belize and Guatemala as well as the entire adjacency zone.