By Alejandro Vernon
The 1859 Boundary Treaty of April 30th signed by the United Kingdom and the Republic of Guatemala, described the boundary between the British settlement and possessions in the Bay of Honduras and the Republic of Guatemala. The chart describing the southern line (Sarstoon River) and the western line (Gracias a Dios Falls to Garbutt Falls thence to the Mexican border) encompasses 8,867 sq. miles. We have used this map in our schools and the Government quotes it in our Constitution under Schedule – 1 as the “Definition of Belize.”
The Sarstoon River which the Treaty summarily referred to as the Southern Boundary states: “Beginning at the mouth of the River Sarstoon in the Bay of Honduras and preceding up mid-channel thereof to Gracias a Dios Falls, ” has lately become a bone of contention between Belizean and Guatemalan military personnel.
The territorial Volunteers, the BPP and the PUP political parties plus Television commentators (e.g.. “Business Hour, KREM) have taken a strident attitude against the UDP government for not engaging the Guatemalan gun boats at the Sarstoon with a show of force against their aggressive tactics.
Our Ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs have explained time and time again that it is not wise to retaliate with an equal show of force, as this would escalate unto a military conflict and lives would be lost. It is wiser to follow the line of negotiation, diplomacy and adjudication with the OAS and the ICJ to settle the unfounded claim and these irritating matters along the Sarstoon, Chiquibul and the western border will cease.
There are three areas by the Sarstoon which the framers of the 1859 Treaty did not envisage would become areas of contention. The First is a small island situated at the mouth of the Sarstoon. This islet made up of silt, mangrove and grass lies near the Guatemala mainland; but our Treaty Line goes around the south entrance of the river, hugging the island. The line shows the island belongs to Belize.
However, the south entrance restricts large vessels from entering the river, and so most vessels, Guatemalan and of course Belizean, use the northern entrance when going up the river. Therefore, in using the northern entrance to the river, Guatemalans eventually cross into Belize’s territorial waters or come face to face with Belizean vessels – opposite the Forward Operating Base site. So that is the first problem.
The second issue should not be a problem, for the 1859 treaty clearly states in Article 6 that: “it is further agreed that the channels in the water line of the boundary described in Article 1 . . . shall be equally free and open to the vessels and boats of both parties.” So, Guatemalans cannot say the river belongs to them alone and prohibit Belizean vessels from travelling up and down the river.
And third, the matter of Guatemalans crossing into Belizean territorial waters and Belizeans accused of crossing into Guatemala’s territorial waters.
Guatemalans coming from Livingston, or San Juan tend to cross into Belizean waters abreast of Barranco Village to enter the Sarstoon. And Belizean fishermen tend to cross into Guatemala’s seas when fishing near San Juan or abreast Punta Cocoli near Livingston.
The problem is that the Belize and Guatemalan waters overlap and converge at the bottom on the cone which is the mouth of the Sarstoon River, which is the mouth of the Sarstoon River and can be used by both countries as per the 1859 Treaty.
The attempt to solve this disturbing case was the Maritime Areas Bill, which was passed by the Belize House of Representatives on Janury 17th, 1992.
Hon. `George Price (PUP) assisted by Hon. Manuel Esquivel (UDP) and Hon. Dean Barrow travelled the country explaining this Bill. The document was elaborated on with the help of the law experts of the Sea, using the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea. They devised the famous median line, which should stem from the mouth of the Sarstoon River toward the north-east. All seas on the east of the median line are Guatemala’s territorial seas. All seas west of this line are Belizean waters. Belizean territorial waters were reduced to 3 miles at some points.
Unfortunately Guatemala has not ratified the Maritime Areas Bill and of course we know this Bill caused Hon. Philip Goldson et-al to form the NABR because he thought Guatemala was getting too much territorial seas.
The lesson we learn is that Belizean leaders have to educate the people so we can solve this land and sea dispute, which began with the United Kingdom and Guatemala, which we as an independent Belize have inherited. We are on the right track by Guatemala and Belize finally signing in 2008 the compromis to go the international Court of Justice for this dispute to be solved. We went to the United Nations to get England out of Belize.
Now we have to go again to the United Nations to get Guatemala to stop her claim and molestations. The legal arm of the UN is the ICJ – The International Court of Justice.