PUP proposes amendment to Maritime Areas Act

By Marion Ali, Assistant Editor

The Opposition People’s United Party (PUP) intends to raise a motion at the next sitting of the Senate to debate amending the Maritime Areas Act so that Belize can claim up to 12 miles of territorial seas, in accordance with international law.

It is a matter that has come up before. In fact, Prime Minister Dean Barrow, had last December, indicated that Belize would amend the Act to reclaim its full maritime territory, but since then it has not been discussed at the parliamentary level.

The Maritime Areas Act was passed in 1992 and Belize did not claim the entire 12 miles of territorial waters that we are entitled to under international law. This extends, in our case, from Ranguana Caye to the Sarstoon River. Belize took into consideration Guatemala’s need for free passage to the Caribbean Sea, as well as the preference for a peaceful settlement to our territorial dispute through negotiations.

This week, PUP Senator, Eamon Courtenay explained that, “Between Sarstoon and Ranguana we claimed three miles; that left a portion of sea that we could claim as Belizean territorial sea, but we reserved our right to claim it at a future date. Let us say for example that Belize could claim four miles or five miles and leave a sliver there for Guatemala to go out. If that were to happen, that would not be Guatemala’s sea, it would remain international waters. So it would not be that we were giving any sea to Guatemala, it would simply be that we were not claiming all.”

Courtenay said the PUP is of the view that the amendment should have taken place immediately after 2008, when Belize and Guatemala initially signed a Special Agreement. This was essentially both sides taking the position to have our dispute settled at the International Court of Justice, having not been able after several rounds of negotiations, to find common ground on our own.

Courtenay explained this week that the party got advice on the proposed amendment and wrote to the National Assembly on October 20, asking for the topic to be brought up at the last Senate meeting. He said the response was that the four-day notice was not enough time, hence, the motion was not included on the agenda. Courtenay said he wrote back and asked for assurance that it would be on the agenda for the next Senate meeting. The response was in favour of the request. The senator said this means that the motion will be proposed, seconded and debated. If it is passed, the Bill will then be introduced as an item for debate at the Senate.

The PUP senator reminded that at the last PUP National Party Council meeting in September, a resolution was passed to bring forth a claim in the Supreme Court, seeking a declaration that certain sections of the Maritime Areas Act are invalid. He said the party also felt it should raise the matter at the National Assembly, since nothing has arisen on it since last year. Courtenay added that the current leader, John Briceño and past leader, Said Musa, had called for the amendment to the Act in the National Assembly, but again it did not trigger any action towards that end.

The PUP’s former lead representative on our negotiating team, Ambassador Assad Shoman had also called that the Act be amended to include all 12 miles of territorial seas.

In weighing in on the PUP’s announcement, Foreign Minister Wilfred Elrington said he found it “baffling” that the PUP did not seek to repeal the Act when that party was in government.

“I do know that elements in the People’s United Party want to seek to resurrect it for repeal. What I don’t understand is why is it that when they were in office this initiative was not taken, because they need not have gone through the Senate. They were in office from 1998 to 2008 and no move was made to repeal it; so I find it strange that they would want to do that now,” Elrington told the media.

As for the PUP’s minority stance in the Senate, Courtenay expressed hope that on this matter of national interest, the government would support the PUP on the issue, saying that, “A vote against this is a vote against Belize.”

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