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Background and Ramifications of ICJ hearing on Belizean-Guatemalan Conflict

The centuries-old conflict between Guatemala and Belize has entered its final stages of international legal adjudication after Guatemala filed a document known as a “memorial” to the International Court of Justice in December. In that document, Guatemala laid out its legal arguments staking its claim to all of Belize’s territory and its maritime rights. Belize has until the middle of next year to submit its counterarguments ahead of a final ruling.

The History of the Conflict

The conflict between Belize and Guatemala dates back several centuries to colonial times, when Spain controlled most of South America, long before the two modern countries became sovereign independent states. In the 17th century, after the Spaniards found themselves unable to control the territory now known as Belize, the British seized the opportunity and settled the area themselves. Spain, which had been awarded rights to the territory by the Pope, was not happy with the situation but accepted the facts that had been established on the ground and formally granted the British settling rights in 1763 and then again in 1783. Spain tried to retake the territory by force in 1797 but failed, after which it abandoned any attempt to wrest control from the British. Formally, however, Spain never ceded its claim of ownership over the area, and Guatemala, which gained independence in the early 19th century, inherited Spain’s view of the Belizean territory as its own.

British Failure to Follow Through on Promise

That changed in the mid-1850s when Guatemalans offered their de facto recognition of the British colony in exchange for agreed borders and two additional demands: a narrow land corridor that would run the length of Belize’s southern border and would grant Guatemala access to the Caribbean Sea as well as a British commitment to lay a railway line through that land corridor. The British agreed to the Guatemalans’ demands, and a treaty was signed in 1859. But the British never followed through on their promise to lay a railway line, which has been a sticking point for the Guatemalans ever since.

Belize’s Independence

In 1940, Guatemala cited the never-laid railway line as grounds for declaring the 81-year-old treaty void. Guatemala doubled down in 1945 when it approved a revised constitution declaring Belize an inseparable part of Guatemalan territory and threatened to invade Belize. Subsequent Guatemalan governments repeated those threats on three occasions in the 1970s but never sent troops over the border. Belize was formally declared an independent state in 1981. It was recognized by nearly all countries around the world and was admitted as a member state of the UN, despite Guatemalan protests.

Relations in Reality and Decision to Approach the ICJ

In practice, the two countries have maintained peaceful neighborly relations, if one ignores Guatemala’s rhetoric. In 2019, Belize’s foreign minister persuaded his Guatemalan counterpart that they should settle their dispute at the ICJ. Initially, Guatemala, which is the plaintiff in the case, was supposed to file its memorial by June last year, but it was given a six-month extension because of the pandemic. Belize, the defendant, was also given an identical six-month extension, which has pushed its final filing date back to mid-2022.

As opposed to Guatemala’s arguments about the rights consigned by the Pope 400 years ago to Spain and Britain’s failure to build a railway line 150 years ago, Belize’s arguments as to why it should remain independent and not be absorbed by Guatemala are more in sync with contemporary political and diplomatic norms. First of all, Belize has argued that its people have the right to self-determination, which is an internationally recognized principle. Unlike their Guatemalan neighbors, the Belizean people speak English and have a national and cultural identity that is distinctly different from Guatemala. Regarding the promised railway line, Belizean officials have said that only the British can be held accountable for that broken promise and that it would be unjust to hold Belizeans accountable for the actions of a foreign power 150 years ago.

The Uniqueness of this Conflict

This case is fairly unique in that it involves one country trying to absorb its smaller and distinctly different neighbor that has been recognized by most countries of the world and is a member state of the UN. It is dissimilar to other land disputes since in most other cases, it is the local population that wishes to cede from the larger country and to declare independence in the name of the pursuit of its right to self-determination. Good examples of those cases include the division of former Yugoslavia into separate republics with distinct populations and the Scottish referendum to leave the UK. Other cases occur when two countries claim the same territory as their own, as in the case of the dispute between Russia and Ukraine over the Crimean Peninsula. The substantive difference with Guatemala’s demand is that it is seeking to cease the existence of Belize as an independent state—a move that veers far from the course of legal norms in modern-day global politics.

Where Things Stand as of April 2021

Now that Guatemala has filed its memorial, staking out its claims, Belize has until June 2022 to file its memorial, in which it will present its arguments as to why it believes it should be allowed to remain a sovereign, independent state. Guatemala will then have an opportunity to respond to Belize’s memorial with a “rejoinder,” and Belize will then have its turn to respond to that rejoinder with a rejoinder of its own. After the parties have exhausted their legal motions, the judges presiding over the case in the International Court of Justice will deliberate and render their ruling. The prevailing view among legal experts around the world is that the court will overwhelmingly reject Guatemala’s demands and, at most, will award it financial damages for the promised railway line that it never received from the British.