Despite a low turnout of voters, on Sunday, April 15th Guatemalans voted ‘Yes,’ agreeing to take their territorial claim on Belize to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The electorates’ participation in the referendum was at 26.33%, representing about 1.9 million of the over seven million eligible voters. Almost 96% of voters support the ICJ idea, while less than 5% voted against it. Belize is expected to hold its own referendum, where Belizeans will determine whether or not to take the territorial issue to the ICJ. A date is yet to be announced, but it is expected to take place sometime after the re-registration process scheduled for July of this year.
In the upcoming weeks, the Belizean government is expected to start an education campaign countrywide seeking to obtain an answer in favor of the ICJ. Belize’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Honourable Wilfred Elrington has said on numerous occasions that the ICJ is the only viable solution to the territorial dispute with Guatemala. Belize must garner a ‘Yes’ in order for the process to reach this international court, but in the case Belizeans vote ‘No,’ the referendum may have to be repeated, or another legal mechanism found to take the matter to the ICJ.
Guatemalan Vice President Jafeth Cabrera told reporters that Belize was going to hold its referendum in May of 2018. He claimed that Belize’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Honourable Wilfred Elrington had conveyed this information to him during the Summit of the Americas recently held in Peru. Belize’s Ambassador to Guatemala, His Excellency Alexis Rosado quickly rejected Cabrera’s statement, informing the media that the referendum in Belize would not be held until the re-registration process is sufficiently completed.
On Monday, April 16th, the Government of Belize issued a release congratulating Guatemala for successfully conducting their referendum. “This act of civic expression in Guatemala was conducted smoothly and efficiently in a way that contributes further to the strengthening of democracy, peace, and security in Guatemala as well as in the region,’ the release noted.
Guatemala’s president Jimmy Morales stated that he was overwhelmed with the attitude and interest of the Guatemalans who want to inherit solutions and no problems. “They demonstrated to the world that dialogue, justice and transparency are what describes our nation,” said Morales.
During an intensive educational campaign prior to the referendum on Sunday, Morales toured his country in an attempt to encourage Guatemalans to vote in favour of the ICJ. In his presentations, he claimed that there are no defined borders between Belize and Guatemala and that based on historical documents they have right over Belize’s terrestrial and maritime territory. The campaign stressed that Great Britain, who colonized Belize, illegally usurped the territory, thus, they are demanding if not all, then more than half of Belize.
This territorial dispute which dates back to Spanish and British colonial rule about 200 years ago. After Belize’s independence in 1981, Guatemala recognized this in the early 1990’s, but never accepted the boundaries between the two countries. In December of 2008, at the recommendation of the Secretary-General of the Organization of American States, the Governments of Belize and Guatemala agreed to solve the centennial issue at the ICJ. They agreed and committed to conducting a referendum for the electorates of each country to decide whether to go to the ICJ for a final settlement.