ICJ Debate Decontextualized?

“Belize must draw attention to the anomaly inherent in Guatemala’s limitation of its claim to the area of Belize lying south of the River Sibun. Guatemala’s position rests on its view of the function and operation of the 1859 Boundary Convention. This Convention relates to the boundary of the whole territory of Belize with Guatemala. If, as Guatemala contends, the Convention has come to an end, then it has come to an end in its entirety, and in relation to the whole territory of Belize. There is no basis for Guatemala’s arbitrary division of Belize into two parts–a northern part to which Guatemala claims no title and a southern part to which it claims title. There is a fundamental logical inconsistency in Guatemala’s position. If the position acknowledged in the 1859 Boundary Convention remains valid in relation to the North, it must equally remain valid in relation to the South. Guatemala needs to explain the basis on which it now distinguishes between two areas.” (Belize Position Paper and Response to Guatemala’s 1999 submissions, 2001) (Click Here to download Full Document)

As indicated in parentheses, the above quote is taken from the position paper presented in response to the Guatemalan’s 1999 presentation in which they OSTENSIBLY (discussion for another day why I use this word) limit their claim to just the southern half of Belize. I put this quote here because something is extremely “odd” (speaking euphemistically) as it pertains to this entire “debate”. I say odd, because it would appear that one of the most significant national issues is consistently discussed in isolation from the full context of its relevant facts.

There are several instances of this “decontextualisation” to be found throughout the entire Belize-Guatemala-ICJ discourse. For example, this entire matter is a legal issue, but there’s seldom any continuous public perusal of Belize’s legal positions against the Guatemalan’s claim. This matter is also highly legal as much as it is historical, yet key elements of international law such as the potential relevance of the United Nations Watercourses Convention, which entered into force in 2014; the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties that supports the 1859 Anglo-Guatemala Treaty; and more appear to receive little to attention in the public sphere.

ICJ-vs-Security Council Debate

Another example of the decontextualisation could be found in ICJ-versus-UNSC [United Nations Security Council] argument. While nothing is inherently wrong in the Pro-UNSC-Route proponents’ reference to Article 39 of the United Nations Charter, it is somewhat concerning that equal weight appears to not be given to Article 36(3) of the same Charter (See UN Charter Here). To not be guilty of the same, kindly note that Article 36(3) of the United Nations Charter reads:

In making recommendations under this Article the Security Council should also take into consideration that legal disputes should as a general rule be referred by the parties to the International Court of Justice in accordance with the provisions of the Statute of the Court” (Emphasis added).

Of course, the above–which could be coined as the “general rule” clause–follows Article 33 (1), which reads:

The parties to any dispute, the continuance of which is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security, shall, first of all, seek a solution by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their own choice” (Emphasis added).

Now, my point here isn’t to say that the pro-UNSC route is incorrect, per say; it is to say that you cannot conduct the ICJ-Versus-UNSC debate without properly acknowledging clauses like the ones mentioned above. Said differently, if these are not included in this branch of the debate, we would be depriving Belizeans of key elements of facts that are also needed to help them make informed and objective decisions in this matter.

And while legal matters are always arguable, it’s also worth pointing out that experts in this area have expressed repeatedly that even if by some miracle the issue does get tabled at the UNSC, it is highly likely (virtually a certainty) that the Security Council will adhere to the “general rule” clause and send us to the ICJ.

For The Trees

But who is guilty of this act of excluding key points in this argument? While there is the slight possibility that it’s done unintentionally, all the key players (the government, the media, the Opposition, and the alternative movements) seem to have contributed to this phenomenon in one way or the other.

Recently, for instance, Foreign Minister Elrington gave an interview in which he stated:

“It was on the twenty-first of September, 1939 that the Guatemalans wrote to the British to say to them that they will be repudiating the entire 1859 Treaty. The truth is that if you can successfully repudiate the Treaty then it means that the Treaty comes to an end and the property would revert back to the Guatemalans. But the contention of the British is that the property was never Guatemala’s, and their assertion that they were repudiating the 1859 Treaty was not a valid legal position. …Guatemalans are claiming though that in fact they now own the whole territory. That is the effect of repudiating the contract, the Convention and there can be no separate regime in relation to the Sarstoon because … if the Convention falls, then the whole country becomes the subject of the dispute.”

He used an argument akin to opening quote of this article. Why he chose this route to address a question of annexation is for him to explain. Nevertheless, ONCE AGAIN, his comments were somehow misapplied and used to briefly reignite the “favorability” debate about the Foreign Minister.

Thankfully, that chapter of this secondary debate did not last very long. But why did it come up at all? Even if it was just for a moment, how was the forest missed for the trees, yet again?

Because, at least from what was shown by the media of that interview, at no point did someone from the media or Elrington make reference to the fact that this argument was NOT unique to the interviewee: AGAIN, see opening quote. Elrington’s comments echoed a valid LEGAL observation that was presented in 2001–approximately 15 years ago! Had the connection been made between his comments and that 15-year-old fact, it’s more likely that the Belizean public would have been treated to a more substantive conversation and a better view of the proverbial forest.

What The Belizean People Lost

Nevertheless, this article is NOT about the Foreign Minister’s favorability scores. Instead, it is to raise the point that, yet again, the Belizean people were robbed of an opportunity for a healthy and informative discourse on the points presented.

Let’s ask this question: If the opening quote of this article was adequately cited and read verbatim by a high-school student participating in a televised school debate, what would the reaction have been by the viewing public? Would there have been this outcry against the student’s position; OR, maybe it would have inspired some (or maybe all) viewers to “Google” the Belize Position Paper (2001), to see if the student’s argument was INDEED grounded in facts?

More importantly, the merits of the observation would have also been debated among the students, and at some point the “fundamental logical inconsistency in Guatemala’s position” would have been made evident, providing even more evidence of the farcical nature of the Guatemalan positions. As was observed in the statement: “if the position acknowledged in the 1859 Boundary Convention remains valid in relation to the North, it must equally remain valid in relation to the South.”

Contextualisation is a must

The moral of the story is that the territorial dispute should be properly contextualised, and half truths and ad hominem attacks should be relegated or completely eliminated throughout this process. It is not fair to the Belizean people for any party to this debate to rob citizens who would have to vote in an ICJ referendum of the complete picture, and all the RELEVANT pieces of this intricate puzzle.

With that said, it is still of the utmost importance that all citizens read and educate themselves on this matter. In the end, the onus is on the electorate to verify the facts presented by either the government, the opposition, the alternative groups, and the media. There is no scapegoating the fact that citizens are ultimately responsible for educating themselves on this national issue.

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