By Youri Kemp
Caribbean News Now associate editor
BELIZE CITY, Belize — Opposition People’s United Party (PUP) officials met last week in Belize City to discuss several national issues, including the national referendum slated for April 10, 2019, on whether or not Belize should participate in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) dispute resolution over Guatemala’s territorial claim to Belize.
The PUP said it will step in to coordinate the national education process “since the government is not fulfilling their responsibility for a national education campaign”.
The embrace of the referendum is a sharp about face for the PUP, as it has up to now been vehemently opposed to the governing United Democratic Party’s then position of sending the dispute to the ICJ via a proposed referendum.
In a 2015 policy statement, the PUP wrote that it will “not support at this time the holding of a referendum in Belize in order to ask Belizeans if they support the taking of the matter of the unfounded Guatemalan claim to Belize to the International Court of Justice…”
However, chairman of the PUP, Henry Charles Usher, explained that the party’s campaign will begin in September and will go through to January to inform voters of all the issues surrounding the ICJ and the facts about a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ vote.
Prime Minister Dean Barrow announced the April 10, 2019, referendum date in May of this year at a press conference on the matter, when he also made clear that he has instructed the ministry of foreign affairs and the Electoral Commission not to try to “sway” voter opinions in any way in favour or against the referendum questions.
The PUP did not elaborate as to how it will “educate” and inform the public on the issues at hand, whether it will simply support the process of Belizeans voting in the referendum; or firmly take a position of either yes or no in the referendum as party policy. However, party officials in their statement said that they are encouraging party members to “vote their conscience” on the matter.
Guatemala already held a corresponding referendum earlier this year on April 15, 2018, ending with a resounding “Yes!” vote in favour of Guatemala advancing their territorial dispute to the ICJ. However, only an estimated 27 percent of the registered voters turned up to cast their votes.
Observers strongly believe that the turnout on the Belizean side for their version of the border dispute referendum will be far greater and far more participatory, and show a greater urgency to resolve the matter as compared to the Guatemalan referendum.
In fact, after the Guatemalan referendum vote, Belizean attorney general, Michael Peyrefitte, said he feels that if Belizeans were to go to a referendum on whether or not they should go to the ICJ for mediation, then the turnout will be in greater numbers than that of the Guatemalan side – with fewer than 30 percent of eligible voters turning out for the Guatemalan referendum, but with the “Yes” vote garnering some 95 percent support.
The proposed Belizean referendum question shown on the Belizean Referendum Commission’s website is: “Do you agree that any legal claim of Guatemala against Belize relating to land and insular territories and to any maritime areas pertaining to these territories should be submitted to the International Court of Justice for final settlement and that it determine finally the boundaries of the respective territories and areas of the Parties?”
Citizens will be asked to either vote “Yes!” or “No!” on the proposed question.
Registration for the Belize/ICJ/Guatemala Referendum began on July 1, 2018, and is expected to continue well into the early part of 2019.