Following the YES vote on the ICJ, Prime Minister, Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow announced that one of the first steps to be taken to move the matter along will be the amending of the Maritime Areas Act. As it stands, the Act limits Belize’s claim to three miles of the sea at the mouth of the Sarstoon. This was done to facilitate a channel for Guatemala to have access to the seas while Belize and Guatemala were in negotiations. Since there will no longer be any negotiations, Belize will now be claiming all that it is entitled to under international law.
P.M. Barrow told the press that with the claim, there is not much that is expected to change operationally in the southern waters he explained that, “ I don’t expect that anything will change on the ground, or in the sea, as it were it is just to preserve, to make absolutely sure that we preserve our rights for the case that’s going to be argued. I don’t expect that there should be any difficulty at all. That’s not what the intention, to create any problem for our neighbor; not at all,” he said,
Legal counsel for the government of Belize on this matter, Lisa Shoman, further explained to The Guardian that, “the amendment is to remove the three-mile limitation that was in place only to serve as a platform for negotiation. We are not in negotiations any more. Moving to the ICJ means we are past that, so that possibility of auto-limiting ourselves to three miles in the south will be removed. We will claim up to the extent of what we can claim. You are allowed 12 miles but if you can’t get 12 miles then it is the mid-point between the two,” she said. Shoman also noted that there is also the consideration that has to be given to Honduras as they too share territorial waters. She said that as a result of that the three countries’ claims inevitable intersect one another.
As for the original Act, Shoman noted that “the only reason we were doing this limitation was in case we could get a settlement. And if we got a settlement, we would have had to bring it to the Belizean people. The Belizean people, our bosses, have now told us go to the ICJ. So, we don’t need this anymore so that part will be amended but the Maritime Areas Act is still important in terms of the EEZ the 12-mile territorial sea zone, all of that. But there are important aspects of it which won’t change but that section that has to do to the little limitation to three miles will now be removed,” she explained.
Prime Minister Barrow explained that there already exists an amended Act which was prepared by international lawyers. It is now a matter of reviewing it and thereafter taking it to Cabinet for a decision. That decision was taken on Tuesday May 14 where Cabinet has approved that the 1992 bill be taken to the House of Representatives for amendment.
PM Barrow also stated that they will also be sending a copy of the draft bill to the Opposition for them to review. He stated that he was hoping for complete unanimous support. The matter will be taken to the House on Monday, May 20 and submitted to the Senate on the following day, May 21.
When that is done, the ICJ will formally be notified as to result of the referendum and the government will inform them that it is in a position to submit the claim to their jurisdiction. PM Barrow stated that thereafter Guatemala and Belize have a month before the, “clock starts running.”
The process will first see Guatemala getting a year to memorialize their position. The Belizean government then has a year to respond. Guatemala will then be given an opportunity to reply to Belize’s response and then Belize can once again reply to their response. It is expected to be a long drawn out process to run between four to six years to complete.
Belize’s legal representation will be handled by Freshfields Brukhaus Deringer, which will be the coordinating firm. Ambassador Assad Shoman has been appointed as Agent for Belize and Ambassador Alexis Rosado will be Co-Agent.
The role of the Agent is to represent Belize officially at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and to monitor and coordinate the work ahead that Belize’s team of lawyers and other experts will undertake as Belize takes its case to the ICJ.
PUP Will Vote For Maritime Areas Act Repeal
Yesterday, we showed you our interview with PUP's Julius Espat, who said that in next Monday's House Meeting, he was prepared to support the Government Maritime Areas Amendment Bill.
It's on the checklist of priority objectives to complete before Belize's goes to the ICJ to challenge Guatemala's territorial claim. Espat explained that the electorate has spoken in last week Wednesday's referendum, and that as a servant of the people, he must respect their wishes.
So, we wondered what his fellow PUP parliamentarians intended to do when this bill was tabled. The Opposition had a parliamentary caucus meeting to discuss just that today, and after a 2-hour session, Leader John Briceno took a few questions from the waiting press on the consensus they've reached. He said that his party will support the amendment, especially they were already pushing for it:
Hon. John Briceno - Leader of Opposition
"Well always before we have a house meeting and senate meeting, all parliamentarians meet to discuss the order of the day and to build a consensus what the party's position is going to be for the house meeting. So, that is what we just had this afternoon."
"So it was focused on the proposed maritime areas act amendment right?"
Hon. John Briceno
"Well there are two bills that they're proposing. One is an amendment to the Maritime's area act and also the income tax and procedure bill, where they are attempting to merge both the income tax and the GST departments as one. On the Maritimes area's amendment bill, I think it will go through all the stages on Monday, as you all know, the PUP has been very clear when we took out the people's declaration, where we said that one of the recommendations/demands that we're making is the amendment to the Maritimes area's act where we can claim the entire area that we can as afforded under international law. So we had that discussion and this afternoon and obviously then our parliamentarians are prepared to go and support that. Ironically, it is pretty much identical to the bill that Senator Courtenay presented in the senate just some time last year. I don't see us opposing to those amendments. It is the right thing that, it's not the PUP or the UDP that is going to the ICJ, it is Belize and I think that all of us - political parties, NGO's, citizens, we have a responsibility to be able to work together on this issue. It's not about scoring political points but it is about ensuring that we put our best face front that we could put the best case possible to ensure that we protect every single square centimetre of what rightfully belongs to Belize."
"Are all PUP parliamentarians on the support of the withdrawal of the special agreement claim?"
Hon. John Briceno
"Well, we did not discuss that, I just informed them that I met with the claimants and with the legal advisor and the claimants, after we had a discussion said that they leave that up to me as the leader of the party to make that decision and as the leader I felt that is in the interest of everyone to be able to drop that claim. The Belizean people have spoken and we must at all times, respect the will of the Belizean people."