Belizean–Guatemalan territorial dispute

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Belize and Guatemala

The Belizean–Guatemalan territorial dispute is an unresolved territorial dispute between the states of Belize (FKA British Honduras) and Guatemala, neighbours in Central America. The dispute originated from several treaties between Britain and Spain. At the time the treaties were signed, Belize was neither fully under British nor Spanish rule, so Spain claimed and maintained sovereignty over all of the territory of Belize. When the Spanish Empire fell, Guatemala said that they inherited Spain's sovereign rights over the territory. Since 1821, Guatemala has claimed, in whole or in part, the territory of Belize.

In 1859, Guatemala and Britain negotiated the Wyke-Aycinena Treaty regarding the disputed area. The treaty stated Guatemala would recognize British sovereignty over the region. The treaty also had an article about building a mutually beneficial road. The road was never built due to complications. Shortly after this treaty, the Belize territory became a crown colony under British rule as British Honduras.

Throughout the 20th century, tensions flared up intermittently between Guatemala and British Honduras. During this period, British Honduras was slowly becoming independent. Guatemala renewed its claims on the area, using the broken promise of the road as justification. Britain stationed troops in British Honduras to secure the region against Guatemalan invasion and many failed negotiations to resolve the dispute took place. In an attempt to settle the dispute before Belize's official independence in 1981, Guatemala, the UK, and Belize negotiated the Heads of Agreement treaty. The treaty was vehemently rejected by the Belizean people.

Since Belize's independence, the border has been watched more closely. In 1999, Guatemala shifted its stance back to inheriting claims from the Spanish Empire and the Federal Republic of Central America, though it now only claims the southern half of Belize. Guatemala and Belize both stationed troops at the border, with a 1km "adjacency zone" drawn on either side of the 1859 treaty borders. As of 2019, both countries are now settling the dispute at the International Court of Justice.

Early colonial era (1600s-1821)[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 Indigenous tribes had massacred Spanish conquistadors and missionaries in Tipu and surrounding areas, shipwrecked English seamen, then English and Scottish Baymen, settled by 1638, 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]

Without recognition of either the British or Spanish governments, the Baymen in Belize started electing magistrates as early as 1738.[1] When the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1763, Britain agreed to demolish British forts in the region and gave Spain sovereignty over the soil, while Spain agreed the Baymen could continue logging wood in the territory. The 1783 Treaty of Versailles marked Britain's territory between the Hondo and Belize rivers, though the Baymen never agreed to these terms and the governor of British-controlled Jamaica sent a superintendent to control the settlers, but had his authority denied by the farmers and loggers.[1] The 1786 Anglo-Spanish Convention was signed to extend the logging border down to the Sibun river.[2]

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 Britain 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.[citation needed]

Late colonial era (1821-1930s)[edit]

A yellowed map from 1859 with text that reads "Map of Part of the Boundary between British Honduras and Guatemala" and a mostly straight red line depicting the border between the two countries
Map of the border between British Honduras and Guatemala as delineated in the Wyke–Aycinena Treaty of 1859.

By the 1820s, the Spanish Empire was quickly losing its grip in Central America. Guatemala, along with 4 other nations, declared independence without resistance in 1821 to become the Federated Republic of Central America. New Spain became independent shortly after, renamed to Mexico and absorbed the new Federation. The new nations claimed they had inherited Spain's sovereign rights in the area. The UK never accepted such a doctrine. Guatemala's claims were one of two. They either claimed all of Belize, akin to the Spanish claims from before independence, or they shared claims with Mexico, splitting the country into two along the Sibun River, with Mexico getting the Northern half.[citation needed]

Under the terms of the Wyke–Aycinena Treaty of 1859, Guatemala agreed to recognize Britain's sovereignty over the area. The treaty defined the boundary line starting on the southern border following the Sarstoon River from the ocean to inland. Then, at the Gracias á Dios Falls, the border turns right, creating a straight line from the Gracias á Dios Falls to Garbutt's Falls on the Belize River. Finally, another straight line is drawn from Garbutt's Falls to Mexico's southern border.[citation needed] Both Guatemala and Great Britain also promised to build a road from Guatemala's capital city through the territory to connect to the Atlantic ocean. Due to changing governments in Guatemala and spats about where the road should be built, the road was never completed.[citation needed] In 1862, British Honduras officially became a crown colony.

Mexico's claim on British Honduras was dropped in a treaty with Britain in 1893 to end the Caste War.[3] The Rio Hondo was picked as the demarcation line between British Honduras and Mexico, reaffirming the accepted borders from the 1859 treaty and providing some legitimacy to the colony.[4]

1930s to 1975[edit]

In August 1931, an exchange of notes between the UK and Guatemala reaffirms the borders from the 1859 treaty. In these notes, they show that Guatemala and the UK want to finish the demarcation process of the border in 1929. It is confirmed that both governments' commissioners met and constructed the concrete monument markers for the border.[5] One was constructed on Garbutt's Falls, and another was constructed on Gracias á Dios Falls. The Guatemalan Ministry For Foreign Affairs accepted that these markers were built and defined "part of the boundary line".[5]

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, i.e. the clause about the road. In Guatemala's 1945 constitution, it stated that British Honduras was the twenty-third department of Guatemala.

In February 1948, Guatemala threatened to invade and forcibly annex the territory, and the British responded by deploying two companies from 2nd Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment. One company deployed to the border and found no signs of any Guatemalan incursion, but the British decided to permanently station a company in Belize City. Since 1954 a succession of military and right-wing governments in Guatemala frequently whipped up nationalist sentiment, generally to divert attention from domestic problems. Guatemala also periodically massed troops on the border with the country in a threatening posture. In 1957, responding to a Guatemalan threat to invade, a company of the Worcesteshire Regiment was deployed, staying briefly and carrying out jungle training before leaving. On 21 January 1958, a force of pro-Guatemalan fighters from the Belize Liberation Army, who had likely been aided and encouraged by Guatemala, crossed the border and raised the Guatemalan flag. A British platoon was then deployed and exchanged fire with them, before arresting some 20 fighters.[1][6]

Negotiations between Britain and Guatemala began again in 1961, but the elected representatives of British Honduras had no voice in these talks. George Price refused an invitation from Guatemalan President Ydígoras Fuentes to make British Honduras an "associated state" of Guatemala. Price reiterated his goal of leading the colony to independence. In 1963, Guatemala broke off talks and ended diplomatic relations with Britain. In 1964, Britain granted British Honduras self-government under a new constitution. The next year, Britain and Guatemala agreed to have an American lawyer, appointed by United States President Lyndon Johnson, mediate the dispute. The lawyer's draft treaty proposed giving Guatemala so much control over British Honduras, including internal security, defence, and external affairs, that the territory would have become more dependent on Guatemala than it was already on Britain. The United States supported the proposals. All parties in British Honduras, however, denounced the proposals, and Price seized the initiative by demanding independence from Britain with appropriate defence guarantees.[1]

A series of meetings, begun in 1969, ended abruptly in 1972 when the United Kingdom, in response to intelligence suggesting an imminent Guatemalan invasion,[7] announced it was sending the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and her air wing (Phantom FG.1s and Blackburn Buccaneers) alongside 8,000 troops to Belize to conduct amphibious exercises. Guatemala responded by deploying its own troops along the border. Talks resumed in 1973, but broke off in 1975 when tensions flared once again. Guatemala again began massing troops on the border, and the United Kingdom responded by deploying troops, along with a battery of 105mm field guns, surface-to-air missiles, six fighter jets, and a frigate. Following this deployment, tensions were defused, largely as a result of many Guatemalan soldiers deserting.[6]

1975 to independence in 1981[edit]

At this point, the Belizean and British governments, frustrated at dealing with the military-dominated regimes in Guatemala, agreed on a new strategy that would take the case for self-determination to various international forums. The Belize government felt that by gaining international support, it could strengthen its position, weaken Guatemala's claims, and make it harder for Britain to make any concessions.[1]

Belize argued that Guatemala frustrated the country's legitimate aspirations to independence and that Guatemala was pushing an irrelevant claim and disguising its own colonial ambitions by trying to present the dispute as an effort to recover territory lost to a colonial power. Between 1975 and 1981, Belizean leaders stated their case for self-determination at a meeting of the heads of Commonwealth of Nations governments in Jamaica, the conference of ministers of the Nonaligned Movement in Peru, and at meetings of the United Nations (UN). The support of the Nonaligned Movement proved crucial and assured success at the UN.[1] Latin American governments initially supported Guatemala. Cuba, however, was the first Latin country, in December 1975, to support Belize in a UN vote that affirmed Belize's right to self-determination, independence, and territorial integrity. The outgoing Mexican president, Luis Echeverría, indicated that Mexico would appeal to the Security Council to prevent Guatemala's designs on Belize from threatening peace in the area. In 1975/6, Guatemala made further moves against Belize, but was deterred from invading, especially since British fighter jets had by then been permanently stationed there. From 1977 onward, the border was constantly patrolled and observation posts monitored key points.[6] 1976 Head of government Omar Torrijos of Panama began campaigning for Belize's cause, and in 1979 the Sandinista government in Nicaragua declared unequivocal support for an independent Belize.[1]

In each of the annual votes on this issue in the UN, the United States abstained, thereby giving the Guatemalan government some hope that it would retain United States backing. Finally, in November 1980, with Guatemala completely isolated, the UN passed a resolution that demanded the independence of Belize, with all its territory intact, before the next session of the UN in 1981. The UN called on Britain to continue defending the new nation of Belize. It also called on all member countries to offer their assistance.[1]

A last attempt was made to reach an agreement with Guatemala prior to the independence of Belize. The Belizean representatives to the talks made no concessions, and a proposal, called the Heads of Agreement, was initialled on 11 March 1981. 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. When far-right political forces in Guatemala labelled the proposals as a sell-out, the Guatemalan government refused to ratify the agreement and withdrew from the negotiations. Meanwhile, the opposition in Belize engaged in violent demonstrations against the Heads of Agreement. The demonstrations resulted in four deaths, many injuries, and damage to the property of the People's United Party leaders and their families. A state of emergency was declared. However, the opposition could offer no real alternatives. With the prospect of independence celebrations in the offing, the opposition's morale fell. Independence came to Belize on 21 September 1981, without reaching an agreement with Guatemala.[1]


Britain continued to maintain British Forces Belize to protect the country from Guatemala, consisting of an army battalion and No. 1417 Flight RAF of Harrier fighter jets. The British also trained and strengthened the newly formed Belize Defence Force. There was a serious fear of a Guatemalan invasion in April 1982, when it was thought that Guatemala might take advantage of the Falklands War to invade, but these fears never materialised. Around this time, Belize claims that they were not bound by the 1859 treaty since they did not sign it.[citation needed]

Significant negotiations between Belize and Guatemala, with the United Kingdom as an observer, resumed in 1988. Guatemala recognised Belize's independence in 1991 and diplomatic relations were established.

In 1994, British Forces Belize was disbanded and most British troops left Belize, but the British maintained a training presence via the British Army Training and Support Unit Belize and 25 Flight AAC until 2011, when the last British forces, except for seconded advisers, left Belize.[6][8]

The renewed claim covers land south of the Sibun River.

On 18 October 1999, Guatemala's Foreign Minister sent a letter to the Prime Minister of Belize, Said Musa, reasserting Guatemala's 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:[9]

The Government of Guatemala contends that the territory which belonged to the Federal Republic of Central America and, by succession, to the Republic of Guatemala, specifically the area from the Sibun River to the Sarstoon River, which is an integral part of the Province of Verapaz, must be returned to Guatemala.

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.[10] The majority of Belizeans are strongly opposed to becoming part of Guatemala.

The Guatemalan military placed personnel at the edge of the internationally recognised border. Belizean patrols incorporating Belize Defence Force members and police forces took up positions on their side of the border.[11]

In February 2000, a Belizean patrol shot and killed a Guatemalan in the area of Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve in Belize. On 24 February 2000, personnel from the two nations encountered each other in Toledo District.[11] The two countries held further talks on 14 March 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.

Developments since 2005[edit]

In September 2005, Belize, Guatemala and the OAS signed the Confidence Building Measures document, committing the parties to avoid conflicts or incidents on the ground conducive to tension between them.[12]

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). A "Special Agreement" on submitting the issue to the ICJ was signed on 8 December 2008.[13] In the Special Agreement, a referendum was to be held on the issue simultaneously in Belize and Guatemala on 6 October 2013, but Guatemala did not go through with the process.[14]

In May 2015, Belize allowed Guatemala to proceed with a referendum asking the ICJ to definitively rule on the dispute although Belize by its own admission is not ready for such a vote.[15] 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.[16][17]

Former Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales 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."[16]

On January 13, 2017, Belizean law changed from requiring any referenda vote to have 60% voter turnout to a simple majority vote. [18]

The Guatemalan referendum was finally held on 15 April 2018. 95.88% of voters supported sending the claim to the ICJ. Voter turnout was 25%.[19] The Belize referendum was scheduled for 10 April 2019; however, challenges to the legality of the referendum caused it to be delayed.[20]

On 15 April 2019, during the crisis over the delay of the Belizean referendum, three Guatemalan gunboats prevented the Belizean coast guard from patrolling the Sarstoon River on the border between the two countries.[21]

On 8 May 2019, the referendum in Belize was finally held, and 55.4% of voters agreed to allow the International Court of Justice to resolve the dispute.[22] It is thought that the court will likely rule in Belize's favour, given that the 1859 treaty was ratified by both sides and implemented by Guatemala for 80 years, that Guatemala has never occupied any part of Belize, and that Belize's boundaries have been recognized by virtually all independent states.[23]

As of 7 June 2019, the ICJ was seised of the dispute, having received requests from both countries to resolve the dispute.[24] On 22 April 2020, the ICJ extended the due dates for briefs from both countries about the matter, due to the COVID-19 pandemic's interference in their preparations. Guatemala's was due 8 December 2020 and Belize's was due 8 June 2022.[25]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Bolland, Nigel. A Country Study: Belize (Tim Merrill, editor). Library of Congress Federal Research Division (January 1992).
  2. ^ Reyner, Anthony S. (1963). "British Honduras—Development of Its International Boundaries". World Affairs. Sage Publications. 126 (2): 111–114. JSTOR 20670311. Retrieved 18 June 2022. Twenty years later, the Versailles Treaty delimited the British concession by the Belize and Hondo Rivers, and the 1786 London Convention extended the wood-cutting area as far south as the Sibun
  3. ^ "The Mariscal-Spencer Treaty between Mexico and England in 1893". Amandala. 21 August 2008. Retrieved 19 June 2022.
  4. ^ Zepeda, Beatriz (21 October 2021). "The boundaries of power. The geopolitical configuration of Mexico's borders in the 19th century" (pdf). IdeAs (18): 16. doi:10.4000/ideas.11909. ISSN 1950-5701. S2CID 244613015. Without expressly recognising British sovereignty over the territory, Mexico granted legitimacy to the existence of the British colony in the Yucatán Peninsula. ...  As for territorial limits, both sides took the Rio Hondo as their natural boundary and based the demarcation on the 1859 Anglo-Guatemalan treaty.
  5. ^ a b "Great Britian and Northern Ireland and Guatemala Exchange of Notes respecting the Boundary between British Honduras and Guatemala, with Annexes" (PDF). 26 August 1931. pp. 3–4. Retrieved 22 June 2022.
  6. ^ a b c d British Honduras Archived 15 April 2014 at the Wayback Machine.
  7. ^ White, Rowland (1 April 2010). Phoenix squadron. Bantam Press. ISBN 978-0552152907.
  8. ^ Dion E. Phillips: The Military of Belize.
  9. ^ Lauterpacht, Elihu; Stephen Schwebel; Shabtai Rosenne; Francisco Orrego Vicuña (November 2001). "Legal Opinion on Guatemala's Territorial Claim to Belize" (PDF). p. 7. Archived from the original (PDF) on 12 November 2012. Retrieved 10 November 2012.
  10. ^ Contreras, Geovanni; Manuel Hernández (23 January 2013). "Preocupa a Guatemala traba a referendo con Belice". Prensa Libre (in Spanish). Retrieved 25 January 2013.
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ "Signing of Special Agreement between Belize and Guatemala" (PDF). 8 December 2008. Retrieved 10 June 2022. A significant milestone in that dialogue was achieved on September 7, 2005, when the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of both countries met right here in this very house to sign the Agreement on a Framework for Negotiations and Confidence‐Building Measures ...
  13. ^ "Belize & Guatemala Sign Special Agreement in Washington". Naturalight Productions Ltd. 8 December 2008. Retrieved 28 June 2010.; "SPECIAL AGREEMENT BETWEEN BELIZE AND GUATEMALA TO SUBMIT GUATEMALA'S TERRITORIAL, INSULAR AND MARITIME CLAIM TO THE INTERNATIONAL COURT OF JUSTICE" (PDF). 8 December 2008. Retrieved 10 June 2022.
  14. ^  ;"Guatemala sets stage for referendum over Belize border". AFP News. 17 January 2018. Retrieved 10 June 2022. But Guatemala in 2013 froze the required referendum process ...
  15. ^ "Guatemala may hold Belize territorial dispute referendum this year: Belize yet to announce a date". The San Pedro Sun. 22 May 2015. Retrieved 10 June 2022.
  16. ^ a b Trujillo, Renee. "Presidential Candidate for Guatemala Says Belize Can Still Be Fought For" Archived 28 September 2015 at the Wayback Machine, LOVE FM, 9 September 2015 (accessed 28 September 2015)
  17. ^ Ramos, Adele. "Belize and Guatemala to amend ICJ compromis", Amandala, 12 May 2015. (accessed 14 May 2015)
  18. ^ "Belize and Guatemala". OAS. Retrieved 10 June 2022.
  19. ^ "Guatemalans say "Yes" to the ICJ". The Reporter. 20 April 2018. Archived from the original on 20 April 2018. Retrieved 21 April 2018.
  20. ^ Humes, Aaron. "Court of Appeal declines intervention in ICJ referendum case". Retrieved 9 April 2019.; Staff (10 April 2019). "ICJ Referendum postponed until further notice". San Ignacio, Belize: Breaking Belize News. Retrieved 10 April 2019.
  21. ^ "Guatemalan navy gunboats block Belize Coast Guard from accessing the Sarstoon river". 15 April 2019. Retrieved 16 April 2019.
  22. ^ "Belize votes to have UN court rule on age-old territorial dispute with Guatemala". CBC News. 9 May 2019. Retrieved 9 May 2019.
  23. ^ "Why Belize Is Likely to Prevail in Its Territorial Dispute With Guatemala". World Politics Review. 23 May 2019. Retrieved 12 June 2020.
  24. ^ "Report of the International Court of Justice 1 August 2018-31 July 2019" (PDF). International Court of Justice. United Nations. 1 August 2019. p. 55. Retrieved 10 October 2020.
  25. ^ "Extension of the time-limits for the filing of the initial pleadings" (PDF). International Court of Justice. 24 April 2020. Retrieved 10 October 2020.

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