by Thérèse Belisle Nweke … A Belizean in Nigeria on the Annexation of the Sarstoon
” All your friends are false; all your enemies are real”
– Mexican proverb
The subterfuge, excuses and unimpressive attempts to conceal the truth have ended. The Sarstoon is no longer Belize’s, but is now a part of the Republic of Guatemala. This, the redoubtable Wil Maheia recently proved when as head of the Belize Territorial Volunteers (BTV), he and 19 other Belizeans were arbitrarily prevented by armed Guatemalan military personnel from entering the Sarstoon river, on their way to the Gracias a Dios border marker. Guatemala’s uncompromising Foreign Minister, Carlos Raul Morales, justified the action by accusing the Belizeans of “entering Guatemalan water”.
This recent February 27 action by Guatemala to exercise sovereignty over Belizean territory did not create any great furore among Belizeans at home, including the PUP Opposition, or those in the Diaspora. Diasporan Belizeans neither protested at nor picketed Guatemala’s UN Mission in New York, or spoke to correspondents of Al Jazeera, the BBC, Reuters, AP, AFP, even VOA, Press Trust of India, NAN, and CNN – which are among those media organisations with wide international coverage operating in the US. In a sense, I can understand why Belizeans at home did not take to the streets as would have been the case once upon a time. They are a generally decimated people; a former majority, now Diasporan, has become an impoverished minority at home. They are hungry, jobless, careless, unknowing and, therefore, indifferent – broken, used, abused and sold down The Belize or Old River by their black brothers, whose only mantra is: “It’s the money, Stupid”!
Earlier attempts by Guatemala to assert its sovereignty include one exactly a year ago in February 2015, when 37 BTV members travelling on a Belize registered boat in the Sarstoon area were arrested by the Guatemalan military and taken into custody in Livingston, Guatemala. Then on 28th May, 2015, Guatemalan military personnel ordered Belizean Coast Guards off Sarstoon Island, thus forcing them to cease building their forward operating base in the area. At the recent Belize Bar Association annual conference, no less a person than the Commander of Belize’s Defence Force (BDF), Brigadier-General David Jones, reportedly said that the BDF has been challenged within the Sarstoon by Guatemalans, and prevented from conducting operations in the extreme southern flank of Belize – and, made to understand that the entire Sarstoon is Guatemalan territory.
The Government of Belize (GOB) is fully aware that there are sections of Belize’s western and southern borders, clearly demarcated by the 1859 Treaty between Britain and Guatemala, when Belize was still a British colony, that have not only been invaded, infiltrated and occupied by Guatemalans, but contain various Guatemalan settlements and camps that are expanding by the day. These also include the northern bank of the Sarstoon River, the western border in Toledo in the Columbia forest, not far from San Vicente village and across the border to Dolores, where the invaders now have pastures, and consistently attack Mayan villages in these areas. Among the villages most affected are San Vicente, Dolores, Machaquilha, Otoxha, San Benito Poite and Jalacte. Indeed, the Guatemalans have gone as far as Barranco!
The GOB is also aware that Guatemala has torn the 1849 Treaty to shreds and flung it into the collective faces of Belizeans. Due to the fact that Belizeans, irrespective of their age and level of education, are generally ignorant of all the facts pertaining to the illogical and presumptuous Guatemalan claim to Belize, as a result of Belize’s dysfunctional education system, not many are cognisant of the terms of the 1859 Treaty, which clearly delineates where Belize’s and Guatemala’s borders exist.
Guatemala has changed its arguments twice on why it claims Belize. First, under the 1859 Anglo-Guatemalan Treaty, it had agreed to recognise the right of Belizeans to their entire country. Then, in 1940, it argued that the 1859 Treaty was void because of a cart road that Britain had failed to build in Clause VI of the treaty. In 1981, a newly Independent Belize, under George Cadle Price, however, insisted that Belize was not bound by a treaty it had not signed, and that Guatemala must honour the boundaries of the 1859 Treaty which it had signed, even if Britain had failed to build a cart road from Guatemala to Punta Gorda. Since 1999, a second narrative has overshadowed the first, which is, that more than half of Belize, from the Sibun River south, belongs to Guatemala, on the grounds that it had inherited Spain’s 1494 and 18th century claims on Belize. In fact, Guatemala states that it is owed 4,738 square miles, or 12,272 km, which is 53 per cent of the entire country of Belize. This includes Toledo District (the richest), the Sarstoon, Stann Creek and significant parts of Cayo and Belize districts, and all Belize’s cayes, except St. George’s Caye. In other words, Guatemala’s goal is to take everything up to the Sibun. In the words of Guatemala’s President Jimmy Morales:
“Something is happening right now, we are about to lose Belize. We have not lost it yet”.
Therefore, instead of Belizeans singing their National Anthem as they now do – “. . . From proud Rio Hondo to old Sarstoon, / Through coral isle, over blue lagoon; . . .” they may one day be singing “. . . From proud Rio Hondo to old Sibun, / No coral isle, only blue lagoon; . . .”
What then is Belmopan’s response to this? The government has warned Belizeans to avoid areas which the Guatemalans contest, (or rather have taken). Villagers have been specifically advised not to use the adjacency zone, that is, a kilometre to the east and west of the 1859 Treaty line, which is the Belize-Guatemala border. The GOB was “grateful” that Wil Maheia and his BTV associates were neither injured nor detained by the Guatemalans on February 27; and it did not recall Alexis Rosado, its ambassador to Guatemala, for fear it would “create a breakdown in relations” between both countries.
If invading another country, occupying it and unilaterally changing its borders do not constitute a de facto breakdown in relations, then what does? The GOB persistently waves the flag of an ICJ resolution before Belizeans as the panacea to the problem. In reality, a large number of informed and concerned Belizeans view this as an excuse for placatory and pussyfooting behaviour, which not only insults Belizean sensibilities and intelligence, but further emboldens the Guatemalans, who do not conceal their contempt for Belizeans as quislings. Meanwhile, as the government waits “for Godot”, Guatemala forcefully and illegally continues its predatory march, seizing Belizean land and water, and flagrantly abusing its vast maritime and forestry resources, while Nero’s descendants fiddle away.
The Rt. Honourable Dean Barrow, the Prime Minister of Belize, hopes to conduct a referendum in respect of Belize going to the ICJ some time next year. Guatemala hopes to do the same. David Gibson, in his cogent and pragmatic analysis of 26th January, 2016 in AMANDALA, raised a valid point regarding any amendment to the Referendum Act to provide for a simple majority, as: “not likely to go down well with the Belizean people and could result in a ‘No’ vote, given the suspicion surrounding Guatemala’s earlier demands that the Government of Belize amend the Act. . .” This very sensible advice ought not to be ignored.
It is highly likely that, like Britain’s Neville Chamberlain learnt to his cost when dealing with Adolf Hitler, Dean Barrow may soon understand that no amount of bilateral agreements and confidence building measures Belize enters into with Guatemala will succeed in keeping it in its place. Had his government taken concrete and effective measures to nip the situation in the bud, and before anybody gets to the ICJ, assuming this were indeed to happen, things would not have come to this level. Belize in 1981 became Independent with its entire 8,867 square miles or 22,966 km intact. Mr. Barrow has secured a place in Belize’s Hall of Fame as the first consecutive three term Prime Minister of Belize, having been elected first in 2008, and re-elected consequently in 2012 and 2015. However, he should wisely resist the possibility of entering Belize’s Gallery of Rogues as the first Prime Minister of Belize to lose territory to Guatemala. History will never absolve him and his government.
It is a given that Guatemala does not respect the rule of law even within its own borders. This is a nation that was at war with itself for 36 years (1960 – 1996), and during those decades, its US-backed governments fought leftist freedom fighters and perpetrated genocide on thousands of Guatemala’s indigenous Maya citizens, and stole their land. With a population of 16 million people, Guatemala is the most populous Central American state, but one of the poorest in Latin America, being riddled with unstable governments, most of which are beholden to the military elite, a highly unequal distribution of income, a well organised drug trade and vicious criminal networks. Although Belize became Independent in 1981, Guatemala did not recognise its Independence until 1991, and with the proviso that the boundaries remain in dispute.
Guatemala, by not only asserting, but implementing its jurisdiction over the Sarstoon, has committed an act of aggression, and displayed contempt and disrespect for International Law. Informed and concerned Belizeans know that even as this is a hostile act which contravenes International Law and norms, yet another is Guatemala’s repudiation of a part of the Agreement on Confidence Building Measures (2005). See Article 1, Part D, which states unequivocally that the status quo concerning the sovereignty and control of each country’s territory, whether “land, insular or maritime” must be maintained.
Elsewhere I have argued, (See: “The Learning Curve in The Guatemalan Nightmare”, July, 2015 issue of AMANDALA) that it may not be practical for Belize to pursue a military option. And, even that of the ICJ, which many in Belize are counting on, particularly the GOB, might not present the final and most justiciable solution. Professor Jeanne Kirkpatrick, America’s ambassador to the UN (1981 – 1985), and one of Ronald Reagan’s most respected advisers, described the ICJ as: “a semi-legal, semi-juridical, and semi-political body which nations sometimes accept and sometimes don’t”. She ought to know! In the 1986 case of Nicaragua v the United States of America, the ICJ ruled in favour of Nicaragua and against the US, and awarded reparations to Nicaragua. The US not only failed to comply with the judgment, but ignored it in its entirety. Should Guatemala be faced with an unfavourable judgment at the ICJ, given its known penchant to disrespect the rule of law, it would be naive and foolhardy to expect it to adhere and implement a judgment in favour of Belize, despite Guatemalan assurances that any ruling handed down by the ICJ will be final and binding on both parties.
Where an incident of aggression occurs, this is adjudicated by the UN’s Security Council. Has Belize protested sternly to Guatemala and recalled Alexis Rosado from Guatemala City? Has it lobbied truly influential and sympathetic nations within the Commonwealth, Latin America, Africa, or wherever, and taken up the matter at the level of the Security Council? How effectively and consistently has it used its Permanent Mission at the UN to cultivate and rally support there for Belize’s cause? Both CARICOM and the OAS, in my view, have proved to be somewhat ineffectual. Another task the GOB should, as a matter of urgency, undertake is to embark on a massive and systematic campaign to educate Belizean school children, students, and the entire citizenry about the Guatemalan claim, past and present efforts to resolve it, the pros and cons of going to the ICJ, and particularly how that court operates. But will it?
Rather than putting all the eggs in the ICJ basket, Belize must have Plan A, Plan B, and even a Plan C. Belize is now in dire straits, irrespective of whatever assurances are given to the contrary. The nation, urgently needs a powerful lobby of seasoned, effective, professional diplomats, who are past and present members of its diplomatic corps, as well as globally respected International Law, History and International Politics scholars, who must make a compelling case on behalf of Belize before the Court of International Public Opinion (CIPO). This lobby must not include, by any means, political diplomatic appointees, as well as the legion of Honorary Consuls-General, who are mostly foreign businessmen. These two groups know next to nothing about high wire international diplomacy, and are mainly sinecure holders and financial contactees. Guatemala’s unjustified and immoral claim to Belize must be exposed to the entire world for what it is, and that nation needs to face the threat of international umbrage and isolation, even pariah status, as South Africa did, despite its influential American and Israeli backers. That alone may well remove this millstone from around Belize’s neck. Belize’s diplomatic strategy, therefore, needs to be Creative, Intelligent, Vigorous and Sustained (CIVS). But can it?
For some time now, Belize has become a nation where intellect and wisdom are ridiculed, and patriotism is regarded as “uncool”; even suspect. This, therefore, encourages Belizeans to ignore the idiocy the unintelligent unremittingly bring to the public sphere, when they strive to rationalise not only the obvious loss of Belizean sovereignty, which Wil Maheia has undoubtedly proved, but also the culpable inaction.
The writer lives in Lagos, Nigeria.
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