Ending 50 years of Venezuela and Guyana contention

Sunday, February 04, 2018

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The decision by the United Nations Secretary General António Guterres to refer the 51-year old contention between Guyana and Venezuela to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) should be welcomed by all nations, particularly those in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The peaceful settlement of disputes is vital to the economic progress and social stability of the world. Wherever violent solutions to contentions exist, anywhere in the world, they absorb financial and other resources that could be far better spent on improving the condition of mankind, particularly the poor and vulnerable. The last thing the Caribbean and the western hemisphere needs is continuing disputes between any of its nations that could lead to military conflict. The resources of the Latin American and Caribbean nations are better spent on the economic and social progress of their people.

The secretary general's decision is also important for all small states, the world over, which have little means of defending themselves militarily. Small states have always relied on the international system and the rule of law to safeguard their interests. In this context, Guyana, Venezuela, and all nations of the hemisphere should regard sending the contention to the ICJ as constructive and helpful, since it will cast adjudication in a structured and legal framework.

The secretary general did not easily decide to refer the Guyana-Venezuela contention to the ICJ. The border controversy has existed in its second incarnation since just before the independence of Guyana (formerly British Guiana) from Britain in 1966. At that time, the then Venezuelan Government reopened the “full, perfect, and final” settlement of the border dispute by an arbitral panel of distinguished judges in 1899. The award set the boundaries that now exist between the two countries. They were boundaries fully accepted by Venezuela for 63 years until 1962, as British Guiana moved towards independence, when the then Venezuelan President Romulo Betancourt sought to reopen the issue on the spurious claim that Venezuela had been “robbed”.

Venezuela's position led to a tripartite meeting in Geneva in 1966 between Venezuela, Britain and (then) British Guiana. The British Guiana Government did not accept that the 1899 decision was invalid and held that its participation in the discussion was only to resolve Venezuela's assertions of “robbery”. A treaty signed by the parties at that meeting agreed to an amicable resolution to the controversy and established various procedures including for resolution of the controversy by actions of the UN secretary general.

After mixed commissions, good offices and mediation were all exhausted after 51 years, the secretary general has opted to exercise the authority given to him under the 1996 Geneva Treaty to refer the issue to the ICJ for a judicial settlement. Guterres's predecessor, Ban Ki-Moon, had noted that the UN's good offices process had been in place since 1990. He had determined that the good offices' role would continue until the end of 2017, but that if “significant progress” had not been made, his successor would opt for the ICJ as the means of settlement.

The ICJ has long experience of arbitrating territorial and maritime disputes between States. It has been doing so as far back as 1953 when Britain and France submitted their dispute over islands in the English Channel to the international court. More recently, and within Latin America and the Caribbean, several countries referred disputes to the ICJ. These include: El Salvador and Honduras, Peru and Chile, Costa Rica and Nicaragua, and Nicaragua and Colombia.

Several African and Asian states have also had contentions adjudicated by the ICJ; among them are: Libya and Chad, Cameroon and Nigeria, Indonesia and Malaysia, and Malaysia and Singapore. The United States and Canada also relied on the ICJ in relation to a delimitation boundary in the Gulf of Maine.

Presently, the governments of Belize and Guatemala have agreed in principle to referring their territorial dispute to the ICJ; they are each to hold a referendum to allow their electorates to decide on whether they agree to this course. A very civilised presentation by the foreign ministers of Belize and Guatemala to the Permanent Council of the Organisation of American States underlined the declared intention of the two countries to settle the issue in the context of the international system.

The Guyana Government has welcomed that UN secretary general's decision, saying that its position “has always been that the basis of the controversy is a legal question, which should be resolved peacefully and conclusively through a legal process”. On the other hand, the Venezuelan Government has questioned the decision, maintaining that “political negotiation on the basis of the Geneva Agreement of 1966, is (the) only path to reach the peaceful, practical and satisfactory solution for both parties and in favour of our Peoples”.

Curiously, the Venezuelan Government statement says that the “two states (Guyana and Venezuela) do not recognise the jurisdiction” of the ICJ. This could hardly be so, since Article 93 of the UN Charter specifically states that: “All members of the United Nations are ipso facto parties to the Statute of the International Court of Justice”.

Many other countries, including the 15-nation group of Caribbean Community (Caricom) countries and the 52-nation Commonwealth have repeatedly urged Guyana and Venezuela in the direction of a judicial settlement. At their last meeting in Malta in 2016, Commonwealth heads of government “expressed their full support for the United Nations secretary general to choose a means of settlement in keeping with the provisions of the Geneva Agreement 1966 to bring the controversy to a definitive end”.

All other nations should encourage the two neighbours to follow the example of many others that have opted for the ICJ to adjudicate their disputes. The way is now open to settle, legally and peacefully, the contention that has persisted between Guyana and Venezuela for over half a century.


Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda's ambassador to the US, Organisation of American States, and high commissioner to Canada; an international affairs consultant; as well as senior fellow at Massey College, University of Toronto, and the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He previously served as ambassador to the European Union and the World Trade Organization and as high commissioner to the UK. The views expressed are his own. For responses and to view previous commentaries:




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