House of Representatives and Senate approve amendment to Maritime Areas Act
Friday, May 24th, 2019
As Belize continues to prepare to head to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to settle the Guatemalan territorial claim, the House of Representatives and the Senate amended the 1992 Maritime Areas Act, restoring its claim to its previous 12 miles of territorial seas instead of the recent three nautical miles as stipulated under international law. The House met on Monday, May 20th, while the Senate met the following day, yielding a bipartisan decision to extend Belize’s seas. The new law is expected to be assented by the Governor General of Belize, Sir Colville Young on Thursday, May 23rd, and the government will then inform the ICJ of the results of the territorial referendum held on May 8, 2019, which marked the will of the majority of Belizean to settle the matter at the world court.
In 1992, Belize and Guatemala were in the middle of negotiations to find a settlement to Guatemala’s claim to the country. As a negotiation mechanism, Belize agreed to pass into law the Maritime Areas Act limiting its territorial seas to three nautical miles, instead of 12 nautical miles. This amendment was particularly focused in southern Belize between the Sarstoon River and Ranguana Caye. The new law will now allow Belize to legally claim all its territorial seas as it prepares to defend its national territory at the ICJ against guatemala’s terrestrial, insular and maritime claim.
During the reading of the new Maritime Areas Bill at the House of Representatives, both the Opposition People’s United Party (PUP) and the interim ruling United Democratic Party jointly supported the amendment. The Bill quickly went through three readings in what has been consider the shortest meeting in the said house. Prime Minister Right Honourable Dean Barrow stated it was vital to have the Maritime Areas Act amended as it was a recommendation from the team of international lawyers his administration keep with prior to the ICJ case. Barrow also indicated that his government has informed the PUP about the creation of a four-member bi-partisan committee to be comprised of two members of the UDP and two by the Opposition. This committee will be overseen by the Minister of Foreign Affairs Honourable Wilfred Elrington, along with Attorney General Michael Peyrefitte. The PUP will be represented by Senior Counsel Eamon Courtenay and attorney Leslie Mendez. Barrow added that the amendment of the Act will not only strengthen Belize’s case, but also serve as a platform to draft an application for the establishment of a Sarstoon Protocol. The interim measures for this area of the country is expected to decrease the chances of any conflicts at the Sarstoon area, which is currently allegedly under the watch of Guatemalan armed forces.
Following the approval at the House, it was the turn for the Senate to go through the Bill and discuss its approval. On Tuesday, May 21st, the Senate ratified the amendment to the Maritime Areas Act with PUP Senator Eamon Courtenay being the first to endorse it. “We fully support the amendment that is now before us,” said Courtenay. He informed the Senate that the Bill is consistent with the Constitution and it is enshrined in it. Courtenay also suggested that since Belize is now claiming the 12 nautical miles, it should exercise sovereignty by increasing the presence of its security forces and civilians, particularly in the Sarstoon River and Ranguana Caye. However, Attorney General Peyrefitte did not agree with such recommendation. “We are not going to engage in any behavior that would provoke any kind of animosity when we know that we have in just a few years the best possible chance for Guatemala to leave us alone,” said Peyrefitte. “Nobody wants a confrontation in the Sarstoon, and that is why we continue to work on the Sarstoon Protocol.” Peyrefitte is hopeful that they can get Guatemala around the table to finally negotiation the protocol.
The journey for the amendment of the Maritime Areas Act began on Tuesday, May 14th, after it was approved by Cabinet. That same day, the government appointed former Foreign Minister and Ambassador Assad Shoman as the Agent and current Ambassador to Guatemala His Excellency Alexis Rosado as Co-Agent to represent Belize at the ICJ during the case. Shoman’s and Rosado’s job will be to coordinate all legal, diplomatic, and organizational elements in the ICJ case to take place at The Hague, Netherlands in Europe.
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