Commentary: Belize opposition parties challenge legality of ICJ referendum agreement

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Born in Dangriga Town, the cultural capital of Belize, Wellington Ramos has BAs in Political Science and History from Hunter College, NY, and an MA in Urban Studies from Long Island University. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science and History

By Wellington C Ramos

In the Supreme Court on Monday, April 1, lawyers from the opposition political parties in Belize will challenge the United Democratic Party (UDP) government’s compromise agreement that gave way to a scheduled International Court of Justice (ICJ) election to be held April 10, 2019. They are claiming that our foreign minister Wilfred Elrington, violated their constitution for signing an agreement with Guatemala to take their territorial claim to Belize to the ICJ for a final resolution.

They also contend, that for the foreign minister to have such an authority, he needed a three-quarters majority vote from Belize’s National Assembly because the agreement involves issues related to Belize’s boundaries, borders and maritime areas. The government of Belize is rebutting the opposition argument by saying, that they followed all the legal requirements and procedures before setting a date for the Belizean citizens to vote on whether to take the dispute to the ICJ.

The opposition lawyers are asking the court to decide, whether the foreign minister’s actions were under Belize’s constitution and to postpone the date of the ICJ election to another time until the courts decide the matter. The Referendum question (per Article 2 of the Special Agreement) on which Belizeans will vote April 10, 2019, reads as follows:

“Whereas the parties request the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to determine, in accordance with applicable rules of international law as specified in article 38-1 of the statute of the Court, any and all legal claims of Guatemala against Belize to land and insular territories and to any maritime areas pertaining to these territories, to declare the rights therein of both parties, and to determine the boundaries between their respective territories and areas.”

Belizeans must vote yes or no to this question. If the citizens of Belize vote no, then the matter will not proceed to the ICJ court. However, if they vote yes, the issue will move to the ICJ court, and they will have the authority to order the adjustment of Belize’s land and insular territories and to any boundaries, borders and maritime areas. The citizens of Guatemala voted yes to this question last year and to take their claim to Belize to the ICJ for a final resolution.

If the Supreme Court rules that the governments of Belize, both the People’s United Party (PUP) and UDP did not abide by the constitution of Belize in processing this ICJ agreement and election, then the ICJ election will have to be cancelled. The government of Belize will then have to decide if they are going to appeal the judge’s decision to the Belize court of appeals. On the other hand, if they say that Belize’s constitutional requirements were met, then the ICJ election will proceed if the opposition lawyers do not appeal the decision.

This case is a more significant challenge for the opposition parties because they must be prepared to take their claim to the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), which is the final appeals court for Belize if they feel so strongly about it.

The PUP and the UDP from the beginning were always in agreement with each other than to resolve this dispute this was the best course of action. However, the Belize People’s Front (BPF), BPP and VIP were always against this ICJ proposal.

After the legal advice was released, the case is now in the hands of mostly PUP lawyers. Last year when the education campaign started in Belize, the PUP began to see the resistance coming from many Belizeans especially those who live in the southern and western parts of our country.

Many members of their party who saw this issue as the key to winning the next Belize general election in 2020 and possibly becoming the next leader of their party, brought their opposition stand to the leader of their party John Briceno who was a yes vote to change his position. For fear of losing his leadership position, he switched from a yes to a no vote.

However, there are still many prominent PUP officials like Jose Coye, Lisa Shoman, Assad Shoman and Said Musa, their former party leader and Belize’s prime minister, who are saying yes to take this matter to the ICJ. The UDP prime minister of Belize and his representatives, who have expressed their stand on the ICJ issue, have all said that they will vote yes to take this matter to the ICJ if the elections are held. There is a lot of; misinformation, lack of information, fear of Guatemala, insecurity, confusion, mistrust and loss of confidence by most Belizeans toward the UDP and PUP over this issue.

It is expected that most Belizeans will vote no to take this matter to the ICJ. Over the years, Guatemalan citizens have been leaving Guatemala in droves to migrate to Belize because of Guatemala’s military human rights abuses of the native Maya Indians. It is not the people, it’s the Guatemalan government. This hearing will have an impact on the upcoming general elections in Belize and is expected to be monitored to ensure a fair process.

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