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IBRU: Centre for Borders Research

Boundary news

Belize and Guatemala set date for referendum on dispute

(4 May 2012)

On 27 April 2012, Belize and Guatemala set a date for two referenda to be held in both states simultaneously concerning settlement of their protracted territorial and maritime dispute. The Minister of Foreign Affairs from Belize, Hon. Wilfred Elrington and his counterpart from Guatemala, Hon. Harold Caballeros agreed the date of 6 October 2013 while meeting in the presence of the Secretary General of the Organisation of American States (OAS), Jose Miguel Insulza, at the OAS headquarters in Washington DC. Both sides agreed that the time frame provide the opportunity to educate their respective populations about the pros and cons of adjudicated settlement of their dispute. Although the exact terminology of the questions posed in the referenda have not been finalised, it is expected that the people of Belize and Guatemala will decide whether or not the dispute over territorial sovereignty, as well as definition of the land and maritime boundaries, should be submitted to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for binding resolution. The two states had agreed in 2008 to submit the dispute to the ICJ for resolution, pending approval from both sides through referendum. Similar referenda were conducted in Croatia and Slovenia concerning arbitration of their land and maritime boundary dispute.

The long running dispute between the Central American neighbours stems from colonial era arrangements, particularly an 1859 agreement between Guatemala and the British government which administered Belize as a colony until its independence in 1981. Guatemala has maintained that much of the western territory of Belize should be under Guatemalan sovereignty, which in turn affects the potential maritime boundary in the Caribbean. The United Kingdom has promised to provide financial support for the legal fees of both states if the dispute goes to the ICJ. The dispute has soured relations between the two states and Guatemala for decades and Guatemala's foreign minister commented that his country was eager to move past the dispute to focus on domestic development.

Sources: 'Belize and Guatemala agree on 2013 date for territorial referenda' Caribbean Journal, 28 April 2012; 'British Government welcomes Belize-Guatemala territorial dispute referendun' The Belizean, 4 May 2012; 'Belize and Guatemala' reports from the Secretariat for Political Affairs, OAS, 27 April 2012.