By Sir Ronald Sanders
BELMOPAN, Belize, Wednesday April 10, 2019 – Narrow party-political ambitions frequently thwart the wider national interest in practically every country.
The world is watching this play-out now as a public spectacle in Britain where the Brexit question continues to be deeply immersed in both personal political purposes and a struggle for the supremacy of one political party over another. At the end of it, Britain will be a much-diminished nation economically. It will also have little clout in the international community.
But it is not in Britain alone that this tragedy of political ambition over wider national interest is being displayed. On April 3, seven days before a referendum is scheduled to be held in Belize to determine if the country should take its border dispute with Guatemala for final arbitration to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the opposition political party, the Peoples’ Unity Party (PUP), obtained an injunction from the Chief Justice, Kenneth Benjamin, to stay it.
This commentary is less concerned with the legal technicalities of the judgement, important though they are, and more concerned with the increasing tendency to eschew agreement among political parties that serve the national interest, and, instead to pursue political advantage even though it may be short-term and harmful to the nation’s cause.
Of course, the politicians and political parties that pursue these advantages will reject the idea that they are doing so. They will wrap their arguments in the colours of the national flag and claim that they are marching to the drums of the national anthem. They will proclaim it is the people’s interest they are protecting. The same will be done by the governing political parties. But it is the very people, on whose behalf they claim to act, who will be side-lined in the party-political argument.
The referendum, scheduled for April 10 in Belize, was precisely to give the people a say in determining how the Belizean nation should deal with the claim to all of its territory by Guatemala – a claim that has manacled the country hand and foot, retarding its economic and social advancement even prior to its independence from Britain in 1981.
The decision to hold a referendum did not materialise out of thin air, nor was it the brainchild of the governing United Democratic Party (UDP). Significantly, most of the work to hold a referendum was done by the very PUP that sought the April 3 injunction to stop it.
After years of incursions by Guatemalans – both civilian and military – into Belizean territory and an absolute refusal by successive Guatemalan governments to end the claim to all Belizean territory, the governments of the two countries agreed in 2012 to hold separate referenda to allow their people to decide whether or not the all-consuming dispute would be sent to the ICJ for settlement.
After much foot-dragging and postponements over the six following years, the Guatemala government held its referendum on April 15, 2018. The result of the referendum, albeit with a low turn-out, was a mandate by more than 90 per cent of the voters for the Guatemalan government to take the dispute to the ICJ.
In the face of this history and the remarkable step by the Guatemalans to hold the referendum, the voice of the Belizean people had to be heard. Therefore, the date for the referendum was set, and the government launched a public programme to educate the population about all that was at stake.
Unfortunately, no referendum is easy, and the political campaigning surrounding it, never sticks to the question people are being asked to answer. The dissonance, distortions, and disinformation, which permeate the political wars that are launched, were evident in the run-up to the vote in Britain over “Brexit”, and in referenda held in Caribbean countries concerning replacing the Judicial Committee of the British Privy Council with the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) as the apex court in Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries.
Perhaps it was naïve to think that the Belizean referendum would have been free of mischief, misinformation and jockeying for political advantage. However, given that it was the opposition PUP that had done most of the very hard work to advance it while in government, and that the ruling UDP had taken up the mantle, it was a reasonable expectation that the parties would have united to provide national leadership on the matter.
The question for the Belizean electorate in the referendum is: “Do you agree that any legal claim of Guatemala against Belize relating to land and insular territories and to any maritime areas pertaining to these territories should be submitted to the International Court of Justice for final settlement and that it determines finally the boundaries of the respective territories and areas of the parties?”
Straight forward though the question is, the answer has been distorted by those who have played on the fears of the Belizean people that they could lose their country if the ICJ finds for Guatemala.
Guatemala would have been bemused, if not delighted, by the actions that have caused the stay in the referendum. It has sent a wrong signal from Belize. Fortunately, the stay cannot long stand and, one way or the other, either by judicial appeal or by rectification of any encumbering law, the referendum will be held.
This dispute with Guatemala cannot be solved by negotiation – it would be in Guatemala’s interest to prolong it and so maintain the present claim. It also cannot be solved by conflict. The ICJ is Belize’s best route. Both political parties – when in government – supported that view. They should jointly continue to embrace it and give the people of Belize the guidance and sense of confidence they are owed.
Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the US and the OAS. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto.