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Victor Bulmer-Thomas

April 8th, 2019

Belize’s referendum on its territorial dispute with Guatemala could finally bring an end to Central America’s most enduring conflict

3 comments | 16 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Victor Bulmer-Thomas

April 8th, 2019

Belize’s referendum on its territorial dispute with Guatemala could finally bring an end to Central America’s most enduring conflict

3 comments | 16 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

The roots of Guatemala’s claim on Belize go back as far as the 17th century, but the dispute has taken many twists and turns during Belize’s periods under colonial control and as an independent state. Today, the domestic political realities of both countries could allow the International Court of Justice to reach a definitive decision, finally bringing this longstanding dispute to a close, writes Victor Bulmer-Thomas (Chatham House).

The people of Belize will soon take part in a referendum to decide whether or not the country should go to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to resolve Guatemala’s longstanding claim on Belizean territory and waters.

Will this generation be the first to grow up with settled borders in Belize? (Ronald Plett, CC0)

Since Guatemalans have already voted in favour of going to the ICJ with a huge 95 per cent majority, it would be easy to assume that most Belizeans would wish to do the same. In Belize, however, the referendum has proven to be a divisive issue, splitting political parties and even families, with the final result likely to be close.

A last-minute legal challenge by opposition parties has led to the referendum being put on hold, but the government remains confident that the poll will go ahead within a matter of weeks.

The deep roots of the Belize-Guatemala territorial dispute

The ultimate origins of the territorial dispute between Belize and Guatemala lie in the 17th century, when British settlers and their slaves came to the coasts of Central America to cut logwood (a dyewood from which fabulous profits were being made at the time).

The Spanish Crown considered these intruders to be mere pirates, and the British Crown at first did nothing to protect them. It was not until 1763 that Spain, as part of the Treaty of Paris, reluctantly gave these “Baymen” the right to cut logwood within a small area that remained subject to Spanish sovereignty.

These rights were modestly extended by treaty in 1783 and 1786, when the boundaries of what had since become an official British settlement were agreed. A resident British Superintendent was also dispatched to ensure that the settlers complied with their legal obligations.

This did not stop Spain trying to dislodge the settlers in times of war, however, and the last attempt was in 1798. Despite having defeated the Spanish forces involved, Great Britain continued to regard Spain as the sovereign power. In fact, this recognition continued even two decades after the collapse of the Spanish Empire in Central America and Mexico in 1821.

The evolution of Belize-Guatemala relations from British rule to independence

Having become independent from Spain in 1821 and from Mexico in 1823, Central America went on to function as a federation until 1838, at which point it splintered into five separate republics (one of which was Guatemala).

The Belizean territory in dispute today (Janitoalevic, CC BY-SA 4.0)

By this time, the Baymen – with the connivance of the Superintendent – had pushed the boundaries of their settlement far south of the limits agreed with Spain in 1786. As soon, therefore, as Great Britain had won grudging acceptance from the United States that the “Settlement in the Bay of Honduras” did not challenge the Monroe Doctrine, she pushed Guatemala to sign a boundary treaty based on effective occupation. The resulting Anglo-Guatemalan Treaty was ratified by both sides in 1859, with the country coming to be known as the colony of British Honduras in 1862 (the name was changed to Belize in 1973).

This should have been the end of the matter. However, Article 7 of the treaty called for the construction by both parties of a means of communication from the highlands of Guatemala to the Caribbean coast. Due to the ambiguity of the article, an Additional Convention was signed in 1863 making clear that the British government agreed to pay £50,000 towards the cost of a road or “other line of communication”. Guatemala, however, was unable to ratify the Convention by the agreed date and the British government refused to allow an extension. The Convention therefore lapsed.

Despite this, the two sides continued to regard the 1859 treaty as valid and even made efforts to demarcate the shared boundaries at various points over the next eighty years. However, in 1939 the Guatemalan government unilaterally abrogated the treaty on the grounds that the United Kingdom (UK) was in breach of Article 7. A threat of invasion followed, and a British military presence was established. Diplomatic efforts to find a solution were then pursued between Guatemala and the UK, with Belizean politicians becoming involved from 1961 onwards.

Ultimately, however, these efforts proved futile, and Belize became independent in 1981 with the dispute unresolved. And despite independence, the UK continued to keep troops in Belize as part of a defence guarantee, whereas Guatemala continued to claim the territory.

Guatemala finally recognised the independent state of Belize in 1991, and the British defence guarantee soon ended. However, Guatemala subsequently made clear that, while she recognised the independence of Belize, she did not accept its boundaries.

Turning to the International Court of Justice

This deeply unsatisfactory state of affairs persisted for nearly two decades and despite many rounds of bilateral negotiations. Finally, in 2008, the two sides reached a Special Agreement under which they undertook to resolve the dispute via the ICJ.

Because ICJ decisions cannot be appealed, implementation of the Special Agreement has been arduous (Jeroen Bouman, CC0)

That it has taken so long to implement the agreement may seem surprising, but this owes to the fact that ICJ decisions cannot be appealed. Accordingly, constitutional obstacles needed to be overcome, and the electorates of both sides had to be prepared for referendums to authorise resort to the ICJ.

The Guatemalan side, it would seem, prepared well. Although the turnout in Guatemala in 2018 was only 25 per cent, this was not low by Guatemalan standards, and some 95 per cent voted in favour. In Belize, by contrast, the result is likely to be very close, with opinion polls consistently giving a majority to opponents of going to the ICJ.

These opponents argue that Belize already has secure boundaries recognised in the constitution and does not need foreign judges to confirm them, let alone change them. Yet many Belizeans are also aware that without an ICJ ruling their government is likely to continue to allow Guatemalans to cross the border at will. International allies of Belize might also become less supportive in future if Belizeans throw away this chance to resolve the issue once and for all.

The referendum result and a possible resolution via the ICJ

Despite the opinion polls, there will probably be a small majority in favour of going to the ICJ. Many opponents of the move have not registered or will not vote due to their alienation from a political system widely considered corrupt. The opposition People’s United Party (PUP), which has called on its supporters to vote no, also needs to conserve its funds as a general election is likely to be called soon. By contrast, the ruling United Democratic Party (UDP) has argued strongly for a “yes” vote and will be able to mobilise its supporters to turn out in large numbers.

Even if resort to the ICJ is rejected, the Special Agreement does not prevent the Belizean government from putting the issue to the people via another referendum in future.

If and when the dispute does go to the ICJ, the Court is likely to recognise the existing territorial and maritime limits of Belize. Past precedent, the opinion of former judges, and research by international legal experts all suggest that Belize has a very strong case.

That being so, say opponents, why would Guatemala go to the ICJ?

The answer is simple: no Guatemalan politician can risk accepting this reality through bilateral negotiations without being called a traitor. A ruling from the ICJ, however, is likely to take roughly five years to come down, by which time many of today’s politicians will have left office. Resolving a longstanding problem today even if it creates another one for their successors is not such a difficult proposition to accept.

As a result, Belize’s 2019 referendum on taking Guatemala’s territorial and maritime claim to the ICJ could finally resolve a dispute that has dragged on for hundreds of years.

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About the author

Victor Bulmer-Thomas

Victor Bulmer-Thomas is an Associate Fellow in the US and Americas Programme at Chatham House, where he was Director from 2001 to 2006. A specialist on the Americas, he has published nearly thirty books, including The Economic History of Belize: from 17th Century to Post-Independence (Cubola, 2012). His latest book is Empire in Retreat: the Past, Present and Future of the United States (Yale University Press, 2018).

Posted In: Geopolitics