Guatemala diplomats at OAS promise to keep the peace

By William Ysaguirre
Free Lance Reporter

Belize and Guatemala have resolved to keep the peace in the Sarstoon, Foreign Minister Wilfred Elrington reported Thursday evening following a special meeting with Guatemalan counterparts at Organization of American States (OAS) headquarters in Washington D.C., on Tuesday.

The Guatemalan delegation promised to take all measures to defuse tension and avoid confrontation, Elrington said.
The Belize delegation has called for the confidence-building measures, originally agreed upon in 2008 for the Western border, to be extended to include the Sarstoon.
Elrington briefed Prime Minister Dean Barrow and Leader of the Opposition John Briceno of the matter on Thursday evening at the Radisson Fort George Hotel.

After the most recent incident of aggression and intimidation by the Guatemalan armed forces towards members of the Belize Defence Force (BDF) stationed in the Sarstoon area, Elrington led a bi-partisan delegation to the OAS.
That delegation included former foreign minister, Ambassador Assad Shoman, Belize’s ambassador to Guatemala and Central America, Alexis Rosado and Belize’s Ambassador to the OAS, Pat Andrews.

The delegations met in the offices of OAS Secretary General, Luis Almargo Lemes, and they proposed to discuss the recognition that Belize’s borders extend from the mouth of the Sarstoon along a mid-river line to Gracias a Dios, and from there north to Garbutt’s Falls.
The Guatemalan delegation, however, said they were not authorized or empowered to discuss anything relating to the Sarstoon.

Elrington then affirmed that it has been customary for the BDF to travel the Sarstoon by boat to reach an upriver outpost at Cadenas, and there has long existed a protocol or“gentleman’s” agreement with the Guatemalan forces for them to do so unmolested.
Both sides committed to take all necessary measures to defuse the tension and ensure there would be no confrontation of the armed forces in that area, while the process continues towards a final resolution of the territorial dispute at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

A Belize delegation will meet again with Guatemalan counterparts over the Easter holidays, Elrington announced, and further discussions will be held to work out a more practical agreement to ensure peace in the region.
At the OAS meeting, the Secretary General observed that the OAS has been having serious financial problems in maintaining the OAS office in the Adjacency Zone as financial contributions have not been forthcoming from all parties in the Group of Friends, who had agreed to help.

Belize has already approached Taiwan, and since Taiwan’s Foreign Minister David Lin was coincidentally in Belize for President Ma Ying-Jeou’s visit, Elrington had a private meeting with him on Wednesday, at which he received assurances from Taiwan that they would help.
Elrington said it would now be incumbent on Prime Minister Dean Barrow and himself to travel and visit all other members of the Group of Friends to drum up support and elicit further contributions to the cause of keeping the Adjacency Zone office open. It costs US$2.5 million annually to keep the office open and is not an expense Belize can easily undertake.
The Belize delegation also held a meeting with the Group of Friends, which includes Canada, Mexico, Spain and other European nations and several Caribbean nations.

Elrington said the Group of Friends were pleased that there had been no outbreak of violence, and that the BDF had not escalated the situation, even though they were provoked.
But the Group of Friends are also growing impatient, since it has been eight years since Belize and Guatemala agreed to have their dispute settled by the ICJ.
But no referendum has been held in either nation to approve this course. To this, Elrington promised that the Belize government would be making very tangible progress towards the ICJ very shortly.

Elrington’s delegation also met with the US State Department, requesting US assistance in ensuring that the BDF continue to have access to the Sarstoon. Belize got a commitment from the US that it would do everything it could to influence the Guatemalans to keep the peace and to de-escalate the aggression in the Sarstoon.

The State Department begged off on giving any financial assistance, as it has its own financial constraints, but promised it would exert all its influence with Guatemala, as in the past when it helped bring Guatemala to sign the 2008 ‘compromis’.
Where a referendum is concerned, Guatemala’s law requires a simple majority for a referendum, but Belize’s Constitution requires that a national referendum receive a two-thirds majority for the vote to be carried out.

Elrington admitted that the Foreign Ministry was in the process of preparing a proposal for Cabinet to amend the laws of Belize regarding a national referendum.
In reference to a report on BDF strength assessment in the Sarstoon area, reportedly prepared in 2015 after the last incident of confrontation between the Belize Territorial Volunteers (BTV) with Guatemalan forces in the Sarstoon, Elrington claimed to have no knowledge of such a report, saying he had not seen it. Ambassador Shoman also disclaimed any knowledge of the report.

Elrington said while it cannot be said that the BTV has provoked the Guatemalan aggression since they remained within Belize’s recognized boundaries, the recent escalation of the tension in the Sarstoon seems to have paralleled the frequency of the BTV visits to the area.

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