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 1821.

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 Mayan Indian tribes had massacred Spanish conquistadors and missionaries in 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 occupied 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, as the Mayans reverted to their traditional hostility to foreign settlers, although they continued to sell slaves to the Baymen.

Without recognition of 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 denied by the farmers and loggers.[1]

When Spain attempted to eject them and seize their land and wealth, 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 continued operating their own local government without permission from either imperial power, though the British tacitly accepted the situation. This lasted until they joined the British Empire in 1862.[1]

Late colonial era and independence[edit]

Map of the border between British Honduras and Guatemala as delineated in the Wyke–Aycinena Treaty of 1859

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

Under the terms of the Wyke–Aycinena Treaty of 1859, Guatemala agreed to recognize British Honduras, and Great Britain promised to build a road from Guatemala to the nearby Baymen town of Punta Gorda. This treaty was approved by General Rafael Carrera ("supreme and perpetual leader" of Guatemala), and Queen Victoria of Great Britain without regard to the Maya peoples living there. In 1940, Guatemala claimed that the 1859 treaty was 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. Belize further argued that International Court of Justice rulings[2][3][4] and principles of international law, such as uti possidetis juris and the right of nations to self-determination, demand that Guatemala honour the boundaries in the 1859 treaty even if Great Britain never built the road as promised.

20th and 21st century negotiations[edit]

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 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, the Prime Minister of Belize, 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 it had inherited Spain's 1494 and 18th century claims on Belize and was owed more than half of Belize's land mass, from the Sibun River south.[5] This claim amounts to 12,272 km2 (4,738 sq mi) of territory, or roughly 53% of the country. The claim includes 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.[6] The majority of Belizeans are strongly opposed to becoming part of Guatemala.

The Guatemalan military placed personnel at the edge of the internationally recognized border. Belizean patrols incorporating Belize Defence Force members and police forces took up positions on their side of the border.[7]

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 the two nations encountered each other in Toledo District.[7] 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 kilometre (0.62 mi) 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).[8] An 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.[9]

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

Recent developments[edit]

  Not disputed territory
  Disputed territory

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 was initially expected to hold its referendum on the issue during its second round of presidential elections in October 2015, but such a vote was not on the ballot.[10] Belize has yet to announce its vote on the matter.[11]

Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales has made statements strongly in support of Guatemala's longstanding territorial claim to Belize, saying, "Something is happening right now, we are about to lose Belize. We have not lost it yet. We still have the possibility of going to the International Court of Justice where we can fight that territory or part of that territory."[10]

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. ^ "Territorial Dispute (Libyun Aruh Jamuhiriyu/Chad)" (PDF), I.C.J. Reports 1994 (Judgment): 37, Once agreed, the boundary stands, for any other approach would vitiate the fundamental principle of the stability of boundaries, the importance of which has been repeatedly emphasized by the Court (Temple of Preuh Viheur, I.C.J. Reports 1962, p. 34; Aegean Sea Continental Shelf: I.C.J. Reports 1978, p. 36). 
  3. ^ "Territorial Dispute (Libyun Aruh Jamuhiriyu/Chad)" (PDF), I.C.J. Reports 1994 (Judgment): 37, A boundary established by treaty thus achieves a permanence which the treaty itself does not necessarily enjoy. The treaty can cease to be in force without in any way affecting the continuance of the boundary. 
  4. ^ "Frontier Dispute" (PDF), I.C.J. Reports 1986 (Judgment): 568, By becoming independent, a new State acquires sovereignty with the territorial base and boundaries left to it by the colonial power. This is part of the ordinary operation of the machinery of State succession. International law - and consequently the principle of uti possidetis - applies to the new State (as a State) not with retroactive effect, but immediately and from that moment onwards. 
  5. ^ 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. 
  6. ^ Contreras, Geovanni; Manuel Hernández (23 January 2013). "Preocupa a Guatemala traba a referendo con Belice". Prensa Libre (in Spanish). Retrieved 25 January 2013. 
  7. ^ a b Phillips, Dion E. (2002). "The Military of Belize". University of the West Indies. Archived from the original on 10 June 2016. Retrieved 10 June 2016. 
  8. ^
  9. ^ "Belize & Guatemala Sign Special Agreement in Washington". Naturalight Productions Ltd. 8 December 2008. Retrieved 28 June 2010. 
  10. ^ a b Trujillo, Renee. "Presidential Candidate for Guatemala Says Belize Can Still Be Fought For", LOVE FM, 9 September 2015 (accessed 28 September 2015)
  11. ^ Ramos, Adele. "Belize and Guatemala to amend ICJ compromis", Amandala, 12 May 2015. (accessed 14 May 2015)

External links[edit]