One of these days Belize and Guatemala may very well end up before the court. But, right now, tensions over the Guatemalan military’s recent aggressions and Guatemala’s propaganda war make it understandably difficult to support going to the ICJ at this juncture. Guatemala is not acting responsibly nor giving any indication whatsoever that it intends to respect an ICJ ruling that it may very well find to be unfavorable. Instead, it has been flexing its military muscle which is admittedly intimidating and more sophisticated compared to that of Belize and has been ramping up its belligerent rhetoric, painting Belize as the aggressor and brazenly making accusations of human rights violations against Belize.
Most Belizeans believe that we have a strong case based on the 1859 Treaty that recognized British sovereignty over our territory. This is what makes the most recent Guatemalan encroachments and blatant disregard for international norms so infuriating and tiresome. An ICJ ruling in Belize’s favor based on this treaty would certainly be a welcomed endorsement and affirmation of the illegitimacy of Guatemala’s territorial claim. But, the court does not enforce its rulings. Therefore, Belizeans must be prepared themselves to defend and stand up in peaceful solidarity against Guatemala’s bullying. We cannot simply rely on a court ruling. It is therefore not illogical to celebrate the 1859 Treaty and point to it as evidence of the righteousness of patriotic Belizean activism, while refusing to expend limited resources, for what, at best, given the immediate set of circumstances, would be tantamount to another paper win.
No one denies that it would be nice to have that paper win so that our friends and allies can feel more secure in their support; but first we need to stand up and reject Guatemala’s bullying outright and our true friends and allies are astute enough to understand that Belize is presently under attack by Guatemala. Perhaps when the dust has settled we can get back on a more direct pathway to ICJ. But, right now, it is Guatemala that is placing obstacles and hurdles in front of a ICJ, not peaceful Belizean activists who refuse to acquiesce.
Many Belizeans also understand that while we have a very strong case based on the 1859 Treaty, it is not ironclad. Belizeans are justifiably skeptical, not necessarily of an international body passing judgment over Belize’s sovereignty, but of the competency or lack thereof of our elected officials to present the strongest case in favor of Belize. Since our independence, Belize has suffered from a lackluster political leadership mired in corruption and incompetency scandals. A tremendous amount of resources have already been expended on diplomacy efforts and confidence-building measures and where has it gotten us? Seems like nowhere.
It is not just our friends and allies who are becoming weary. Belizeans themselves are becoming weary and skeptical of even our own political leadership’s desire to truly resolve this situation. Belize has become a country burdened by enormous debt, overridden by crime, and mired in so much corruption that it has fallen off the corruption index. Again, these are no conditions to inspire confidence that our elected leaders can and will triumph at the ICJ for our people. To simply chalk up the people’s legitimate concerns to some sort of “endemic xenophobia that makes us allergic to almost everything foreign: foreign courts, foreign investors, foreign lifestyles (but not foreign goods and entertainment—these we love)” displays a great deal of disdain toward our people. Belizeans are among the most open and friendly people on the face of the planet. No people are perfect and there are those among us who vocally spew hate towards others. But, take a closer look at the number of foreign-born individuals who flock to Belize for vacations and retirement and then tell me if Belize strikes you as a place that suffers from “endemic xenophobia.” Take a look at the number of Guatemalans who have made Belize their home and have enjoyed a peaceful existence for the most part and tell me if Belize suffers from “endemic xenophobia.” Stop di fool and let’s be real.
Belizeans know full well that the ICJ is no silver bullet and no guarantee that will stop Guatemala’s bullying. Until Belizeans stand firmly united against Guatemala and until Guatemalans themselves demand their government to leave Belize in peace, there will be none. Mr. Torres argues that, “It is time for Belize to step out of her isolated comfort zone and to recognize that unless and until the ICJ resolves this issue, we will continue to be bullied at the border…” He fails to recognize that Belize has enjoyed the overwhelming support of the international community for a long time now. This is how Belize was able to gain its independence and become a member of the United Nations. Belize stepped out of that imaginary isolated comfort zone some time ago; it is now time to get our act together as an independent nation and start holding our own government as well as the government of Guatemala accountable.
Accordingly, the pivotal question is not, “Who are these key third parties and the international community most likely to believe…?” The pivotal question is do we believe in ourselves? If the answer to that question is yes we do, then we need to peacefully stand up in the face of naked aggression first and foremost and demand the respect and support that we have already earned from the international community irrespective of whether or not we plan to go the ICJ. We should not go to the ICJ out of fear or a sense that we have no other alternative. We can absolutely claim to be a member of the international community of nations, and we can demand respect and support from the international community. We do that not by going to the ICJ in fear and desperation; we do that by going to the ICJ once our house is more fully in order, with our pride and dignity intact; and not a moment before, when an overwhelming majority of our people say so.
We might not be able to match Guatemala in her military prowess, but we have pride and dignity. We are a peace loving nation and our kindness is not weakness. We need to show the world that we have a big heart and that we are prepared to earn our place in this world. Our most lethal artillery does not reside in any legal ruling. Our most lethal artillery resides in our determination to peacefully stand up in solidarity with each other against Guatemala’s bullying. If we don’t do that now, no court in this world will be able to protect us because a nation divided cannot stand.
* Mario Lara is most definitely NOT an attorney anywhere in this world. He is formally educated and holds a couple degrees, but who cares, really? The views expressed by him do not necessarily reflect the opinions of anyone else…of course, that should be obvious.
In Australia, Professor Warwick Gullett works along with the University of Wollongong’s research center in ocean law and policy. While Gullet believes that the ICJ would rule in Belize’s favor on land, his expertise in maritime law compels him to believe that the country may lose territorial waters because of the concave area shared with Guatemala and Honduras. It's an old interview. He was not here to engage the political directorate but as a guest of an NGO on another issue.