The decision by GuatemalA not to proceed with its planned referendum over the future of her claim to Belize has brought any thought of a judicial solution to a screeching halt.
Internationally, the plan to take this ancient claim to arbitration, to the International Court of Justice, was widely seen as a practical and sensible way to settle the century-old dispute.
On December 8, 2008, Belize and Guatemala signed a Special Agreement or Compromis, in which both countries agreed to consult with their citizens via referendum.
The referendum would ask whether there was consensus to take the dispute to the International Court at the Hague.
Two years later, on September 9, 2010 the Guatemalan Congress overwhelmingly approved the idea of a judicial intervention. Belize also concurred that it would seek the support of its electorate for the International Court of Justice to adjudicate the claim and settle the matter once and for all.
But in the intervening 30 months there has been a change of direction. Guatemala no loner wants to hold a referendum to consult with her people about the way forward. On Wednesday this week Guatemala decided to abort the referendum plan which she had so enthusiastically endorsed in September 2010.
Guatemala not only choose to renege on her commitment to consult with her citizens. She took it a step further and ordered that her new passports should include on its cover a map showing all of Belize as disputed territory. The first 40,000 of these passports have been delivered and are now being distributed.
Belize has been struck by these manoeuvrings, but not really surprised. In 1859 Guatemala signed a border treaty recognizing Belize. In 1931 she signed an agreement re-acknowledging Belize’s borders. But by 1975, under President Kjell Laguerud Garcia, Guatemala turned, and made plans for a pre-emptive strike against Belize in pursuit of her claim. The plan was thwarted when Prime Minister Harold Wilson of Britain sent six Harrier jump jets to the defence of Belize.
The Harriers made the non-stop Atlantic crossing with air refuellings and surprised everyone by roaring into Belize after a dramatic five-hour flight.
Guatemala’s attitude towards Belize has been a drum-beat of hard line and soft line. When the militants are in, the line hardens. When civilians take over, there is a relaxation approaching normalcy.
Belize has learned to expect these changes in mood and temper, and not become unduly upset when the hard line takes over.
The newest passport gambit has been a provocation, but wise old Belize will not be provoked. Instead we will launch a new diplomatic initiative. Prime Minister Dean Barrow’s visit to the United Nations for talks with Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon marks the beginning of that initiative, which is Belize’s quiet answer to the hastily conceived Guatemalan passport plan.
Maybe at some future time Guatemala will re-consider and take up the judicial offer once more.
Belize meanwhile needs to be vigilant– vigilant and patient, knowing that much can be achieved through quiet diplomacy.