Belize Guatemala Territorial dispute
The UK supports a peaceful solution to the dispute at the border

One of the priorities of the British Embassy in Guatemala City is to work with the government of Guatemala to resolve its territorial dispute with Belize. We also work closely with the British High Commission in Belmopan. Read on the find out more about: the current status, the UK's interest and role, and some of the history to the dispute.

Current status

In March 2000 the governments of Guatemala and Belize re-started talks to end their long-standing territorial differendum through the Organisation of American States (OAS). And in December 2008 they signed a Special Agreement setting out their agreement to allow their territorial dispute to be submitted to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for independent arbitration.

On 9 September 2010, Guatemala's Congress approved the holding of a referendum on the referral of the dispute to the ICJ, and now Guatemala and Belize have to agree a date for this to happen simultaneously in both countries. Meanwhile both have put into force positive measures to strengthen bilateral relations. For example, in 2009 a Partial Scope Agreement was agreed that liberalises trade for more than 70 Guatemalan products and removes other physical barriers to trade, as well as allowing Belize to export duty free to Guatemala fish, tropical fruits and some industrial equipment. And Guatemala's candidacy to be elected non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in 2012/13 is being supported by SICA and CARICOM of which Belize is a member.

The UK's interest and role

The UK is interested in this issue because we are a supporter of strong international institutions such as the ICJ, and regional organisations such as the OAS. We are keen to see a long term solution that will benefit both Guatemala and Belize, and to support the OAS's efforts to promote wider regional stability and development.

The UK supports the ICJ route as a means to find a long-term and sustainable resolution acceptable to both countries. The UK pursues a two track policy in Guatemala and Belize: to encourage both governments to hold a referendum on the referral to the ICJ; and to increase awareness amongst Guatemalan and Belizean civil society of the mutual benefits of a peaceful settlement to the territorial dispute, focusing on confidence building measures (CBMs).

To back this up, the UK has (since 2008) provided the following:

  • £225,000 to the OAS' office in the Adjacency Zone (AZ) between Guatemala and Belize. Set up in February 2003 (see "some history") its role is to oversee the implementation of the CBMs. But one of its most important tasks is to verify and follow-up on incidents that occur in the AZ, as well as to act as early warning to detect incidents at the onset stage to prevent their escalation. The Office also performs a series of activities designed to enhance communication, integration, and peaceful cooperation between Guatemalans and Belizeans.
  • £292,000 to the OAS' legal fees fund to help with legal expenses incurred by both sides during the ICJ process.
  • £8,000 for a journalists exchange project in 2010. The aim was encourage greater knowledge among Guatemalan and Belizean journalists of the positive opportunities for greater co-operation between Belize and Guatemala on e.g. tourism, business and the environment, as well a greater understanding of each other's bilateral issues and cultures. The project resulted in a number of positive media articles in Guatemala and Belize.
  • £15,000 to fund Guatemala's Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs and senior members of the Ministry's Belize Commission to attend courses run by Durham University's International Boundaries Research Unit. The British High Commission in Belmopan has also funded Belizean to attend similar courses.

Some history

Guatemala believes it inherited territorial rights to Belize from Spain at the time of its independence. Its present claim to the southern half of Belize and all of its islands (or Cayes) follows its rejection in 1940 of the 1859 "Convention between Her Majesty and the Republic of Guatemala relative to the Boundary of British Honduras". Article 1 of this treaty defined the borders of the British Settlement in Belize. However, Guatemala's Constitution allows for a claim to challenge the entirety of Belize's territory.

Although there are claims that Britain reneged on a promise to build a road as part of the treaty, Article 7 states that the two countries would "agree conjointly to use their best endeavours" to establish the easiest communication route from the Atlantic coast to the capital of Guatemala. It is these, and other claims, upon which the ICJ will be called to judge.

(Photos courtesy of Diario de Centroamerica)

When Belize gained its independence from the UK in September 1981, Guatemala decided not to recognise Belize due to its ongoing territorial claim, and as such consular relations were cut with both Belize and the UK. Since September 1981, the UK's position has consistently been to recognise Belize's independence as a sovereign state. But in recognising that Guatemala's ongoing territorial dispute with Belize affects regional peace and security, the UK has an even-handed approach to getting the dispute resolved through the ICJ.

From 1975 successive UN resolutions endorsed Belize's right to self-determination, independence and territorial integrity. As relations improved, in September 1991 Guatemala decided to recognise Belize as a sovereign and independent state, while still maintaining its territorial claim. Guatemalan/UK diplomatic relations were resumed in December 1986.

Since 2000, Belize and Guatemala have had a series of meetings under the auspices of the OAS in an attempt to resolve the dispute through peaceful negotiation. On 8 November 2000, Belize and Guatemala signed an Agreement on Confidence Building Measures (CBMs), which provided a framework for managing disagreements and preventing incidents in the Adjacency Zone (a buffer zone extending 1km east and west of the border line).

In September 2002, two OAS-sponsored facilitators (one each appointed by Belize and Guatemala) presented comprehensive recommendations to both countries on how the dispute could be settled, including some adjustment to the land border and new maritime limits giving Guatemala an Economic Exclusion Zone of some 2,000 square nautical miles. (The Governments of Belize and Honduras each agreed to contribute 1,000 square nautical miles to this zone.) The OAS Facilitators also recommended establishing a tri-national ecological park covering coastal, insular and maritime areas of Belize, Guatemala and Honduras and a substantial internationally financed Development Trust Fund.

Although the Belize Government publicly supported these OAS recommendations, the Guatemalan Government, citing constitutional difficulties, officially informed the OAS in August 2003 that it could not. Both governments, however, continued to work with the OAS to secure an agreement. In September 2003, the UK joined the 'Group of Friends' established under the OAS to help resolve the dispute.

Following negotiations in New York in September 2005, Guatemala and Belize signed a Framework for Negotiation and Confidence Building Measures. In November 2007, when regular meetings of both countries under the auspices of the OAS failed to reach agreement on a definitive solution, the OAS Secretary General recommended the dispute should be submitted to an international tribunal, specifically the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for independent arbitration. Both countries accepted this recommendation and in December 2008 signed a Special Agreement setting out their agreement to follow the ICJ path. The Special Agreement also set out the rules of engagement for the ICJ case and the questions to be asked at the national referendums (which are required in both countries before the case can be referred to the ICJ).

For the text of the Special Agreement, click here.