Belizean–Guatemalan territorial dispute

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Belize and Guatemala.

The Belizean–Guatemalan territorial dispute is an unresolved binational territorial dispute between the states of Belize and Guatemala, neighbours in Central America. The territory of Belize has been claimed in whole or in part by Guatemala since 1940.

Early colonial era[edit]

The present dispute originates with imperial Spain's claim to all New World territories west of the line established in the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. England, like other powers of the late 15th century did not recognize the treaty that divided the world between Spain and Portugal. After native Mayans had ejected Spanish conquistadors and missionaries from Tipu and surrounding areas, shipwrecked English seamen, then English and Scottish Baymen settled by 1638, making their presence permanent by 1779, with a short military alliance with Amerindians from the Mosquito Coast south of Belize, and often welcoming former British privateers.[1]

In the Godolphin Treaty of 1670, Spain confirmed England was to hold all territories in the Western Hemisphere that it had already settled; however the treaty did not define what areas were settled, and despite the historic evidence that England did indeed occupy Belize when they signed the Godolphin Treaty, Spain later used this vagueness to maintain its claim on the entirety of Belize.[1] Meanwhile by the 18th century, the Baymen and Mayans increasingly became enemies.

Without recognition of or permission from either the British or Spanish governments, the Baymen in Belize started electing magistrates as early as 1738.[1] After the Treaty of Paris and with the following conditions re-affirmed in the 1783 Treaty of Versailles, Britain agreed to abandon British forts in Belize that protected the Baymen and give Spain sovereignty over the soil, while Spain agreed the Baymen could continue logging wood in present-day Belize. However, the Baymen agreed to none of this, and after the 1783 Treaty of Versailles, the governor of British-controlled Jamaica sent a superintendent to control the settlers, but had his authority usurped by wealthy loggers.[1]

When Spain attempted to eject them, the Baymen revolted. Spain's last military attempt to dislodge the rebellious settlers was the 1798 Battle of St. George's Caye, which ended with Spain failing to re-take the territory. The Baymen never asked for nor received a formal treaty with Spain after this, and the UK was only able to gain partial control of the settlers by 1816; British people simply continued operating their own local government without permission from either imperial power, until they joined the British Empire in 1862.[1]

Late colonial era and independence[edit]

Main article: British Honduras

Guatemala declared its independence from Spain in 1821, and the UK did not accept the Baymen of Belize as a crown colony until 1862, 64 years after the Baymen's last hostilities with Spain. This colony became known as "British Honduras".

Under the terms of the Anglo-Guatemalan Treaty of 1859, Guatemala agreed to recognize Belize and Great Britain promised to build a road from Guatemala to the nearby Belize town of Punta Gorda. In 1940, Guatemala claimed that the 1859 treaty is void because the British failed to comply with economic assistance provisions found in Clause VII of the Treaty. Belize, once independent, claimed this was not a treaty they were bound by since they did not sign it (and that an International Court of Justice ruling[which?] and international laws[which?] demand that Guatemala honour the boundaries in the 1859 treaty even if the UK never builds the road as promised).

20th and 21st century negotiations[edit]

A 1961 map of the border between British Honduras (now Belize) and Guatemala.

Negotiations proceeded for many years, including one period in the 1960s during which the United States government unsuccessfully sought to mediate, but these talks did not include the actual residents of Belize. Between 1975 and 1979, Mexico, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Panama changed their stances from supporting Guatemala to supporting Belize.[1] A 1981 trilateral (Belize, Guatemala, and the United Kingdom) "Heads of Agreement" was encouraged by the United Nations, which had already recognized Belize's independence.

Although the Heads of Agreement would have given only partial control and access to assets in each other's nations, it collapsed when Guatemala renewed its claims to Belize soil and Belizeans rioted against the British and their own government, claiming the Belizean negotiators were making too many concessions to Guatemala. Thus, Belize gained independence on September 21, 1981, with the territorial dispute unresolved. Significant negotiations between Belize and Guatemala, with the United Kingdom as an observer, resumed in 1988. Guatemala recognized Belize's independence in 1991 and diplomatic relations were established.

On October 19, 1999, Said Musa, then Belizean Prime Minister, was made aware that Guatemala wanted to renew its claim. As a new line of reasoning for their claim (instead of basing it on the 1859 treaty), Guatemala asserted that they have inherited Spain's 1494 and 18th century claims on Belize and are owed more than half of Belize's land mass, from the Sibun River south.[2]

This claim amounts to 12,272 km2 of territory, including significant portions of the current Belizean Cayo and Belize Districts, as well as all of the Stann Creek and Toledo Districts, well to the north of the internationally accepted border along the Sarstoon River.[3] The majority of Belizeans, now quite multiracial, including 60% who are mixed or full Amerindians,[4] continue to rail against becoming part of Guatemala and accuse Guatemala of colonialism.

The Guatemalan military placed personnel at the edge of the internationally recognized border. Belizean patrols incorporating both Belize Defence Force members and police forces took up positions on their side of the border.[5]

In February 2000, a Belizean patrol shot and killed a Guatemalan in the area of Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve in Belize. On February 24, 2000, personnel from both nations encountered each other in Toledo District.[5] The two countries held further talks on March 14, 2000, at the Organization of American States (OAS) in the presence of Secretary General César Gaviria at OAS headquarters in Washington, D.C. Eventually they agreed to establish an "adjacency zone" extending one kilometer on either side of the 1859 treaty line, now designated the "adjacency line", and to continue negotiations.

In June 2008, Belizean Prime Minister Dean Barrow said resolving the dispute was his main political goal. He proposed referenda for the citizens of Belize and Guatemala, asking whether they support referring the issue to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).[6] An official special agreement on submitting the issue to the ICJ was signed on 8 December 2008, with a referendum to be held on the issue simultaneously in Belize and Guatemala on 6 October 2013, but it was suspended.[7]

Both Guatemala and Belize are participating in confidence-building measures approved by the OAS.

Recent developments[edit]

In May 2015, Belize allowed Guatemala to proceed with a referendum asking the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to definitively rule on the dispute although Belize by its own admission is not ready for such a vote. A previous treaty between the two countries stipulated that any such vote must be held simultaneously. Guatemala is now expected to hold its referendum on the issue during its second round of presidential elections later in 2015. Belize has yet to announce its vote on the matter.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Bolland, Nigel. "Belize: Historical Setting". In A Country Study: Belize (Tim Merrill, editor). Library of Congress Federal Research Division (January 1992).
  2. ^ Lauterpacht, Elihu; Stephen Schwebel; Shabtai Rosenne; Francisco Orrego Vicuña (November 2001). "Legal Opinion on Guatemala’s Territorial Claim to Belize" (PDF). p. 7. Retrieved 10 November 2012. 
  3. ^ Contreras, Geovanni; Manuel Hernández (23 January 2013). "Preocupa a Guatemala traba a referendo con Belice". Prensa Libre (in Spanish). Retrieved 25 January 2013. 
  4. ^ "The World Fact Book - Belize". Central Intelligence Agency. Archived from the original on 27 June 2010. Retrieved 28 June 2010. 
  5. ^ a b Phillips, Dion E. (2002). "The Military of Belize". Retrieved 28 June 2010. 
  6. ^
  7. ^ "Belize & Guatemala Sign Special Agreement in Washington". Naturalight Productions Ltd. 8 December 2008. Retrieved 28 June 2010. 
  8. ^ Ramos, Adele. "Belize and Guatemala to amend ICJ compromis", Amandala, 12 May 2015. (accessed 14 May 2015)

External links[edit]