A Review of the Belizean-Guatemalan Conflict Ahead of the ICJ’s Deliberations
Belize and Guatemala have had a longstanding conflict that goes back centuries, well predating the establishment of Belize in the 20th century and even Guatemala in the early 19th century. The conflict between the two sovereign countries harkens back to colonial times, when the Spaniards controlled all of South America (with the exception of Portuguese-controlled Brazil) and Central America by dint of a Papal decree.
The conflict over what is now the internationally-recognized independent and modern-day State of Belize began in the 17th century, when the Spaniards found themselves unable to gain and retain control over the territory now known as Belize. On the one hand, the Spaniards failed to fully subdue the indigenous Mayan people who lived there. On the other hand, they refrained from settling that area, contrary to much of the rest of the continent. The British, who were the Spaniards’ colonial competitors and controlled most of the islands in the Caribbean Sea as well as North America, took the opportunity of Spain’s failure at controlling Belize to move ashore onto the mainland and to settle the area instead of the Spaniards.
Spain, lacking any other practical choice, formally conceded to allow the British colonists to settle, first in 1763 and then once again in 1783. Spain refused, however, to cede its claim to ownership over the area. That Spanish refusal is the original root cause of the Belizean-Guatemalan conflict that has endured to this very day and that is shortly due to be deliberated and resolved by the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
Ongoing Westward Expansion
The British settlers proceeded to stake out what was proven to be an extremely fertile area along the Belize River. They found an abundance of wood, mahogany, and logwood, which they harvested. With time, the British settled larger numbers of colonists and brought in more African slaves to facilitate the lumber trade. That process continued unhindered and unabated for more than half a century without any real protest from Spain, which, as noted, insisted in principle that it retained sovereign rights to the territory. By the late 18th century, this British logging colony had successively expanded further and further to the west in pursuit of new lumber that it could float down the river to the Caribbean Sea, from where it could be shipped to North America or across the Atlantic to Great Britain.
It was at that point, at the very end of the 18th century, that the Spaniards decided to restate their claim to the territory. The British, who had lived and developed the area for decades, repudiated the Spanish demand, claiming practical ownership. In the context of that standoff between the two colonial superpowers, Spain assembled and dispatched a huge naval armada, which arrived off the coast of what is today Belize City on September 12, 1797, to forcibly retake the territory from the British. The British colonists, who were vastly outnumbered and outgunned, normally wouldn’t have stood much of a chance against the powerful Spanish Armada. But luck and weather have often played a pivotal role in the vagaries of war, and that is precisely what happened in this case as well. As the Spanish Armada began to sail into St. George’s Caye, a powerful hurricane blew in and scattered the fleet, destroying most of the ships and damaging the few that remained afloat, which turned around to never return. That event, for all intents and purposes, marks the beginning of modern Belizean history. Conventional wisdom has it that had the Spaniards been able to land, Belize would today be a part of Guatemala.
After Guatemalan Independence
Guatemala, which gained independence in the early 19th century, inherited Spain’s view of Belize as a fundamentally illegitimate entity on an ever-growing swath of occupied Guatemalan territory, since the British continued their westward push unabated. By the mid-1850s, the Guatemalans decided to offer their de facto recognition of British Honduras (Belize’s colonial precursor) in exchange for an end to that expansionism. The Guatemalans had two additional demands: a narrow land corridor that would run the length of Belize’s southern border and would grant Guatemala access to the Caribbean Sea; and a British commitment to lay a railway line through that land corridor. The British colonial powers agreed to all three of the Guatemalans’ demands, and a treaty between Guatemala and British Honduras was signed in 1859. The British, however, only followed through on their first two pledges — to stop encroaching on Guatemalan territory and to turn over a narrow land corridor along the southern border. They failed, however, to keep their promise to lay a railway line.
A tense but working relationship ensued between Guatemala and British Honduras in the decades that followed, culminating in the physical demarcation of the agreed-upon border in 1933 with large concrete markers. But things took a turn for the worse in 1940 when Guatemala suddenly declared the 81-year-old treaty void, citing Britain’s failure to lay the promised railway line. In 1945, Guatemala took things a step further and approved a revised constitution declaring Belize an inseparable part of Guatemalan territory, accompanied by threats to invade Belize. Guatemalan governments subsequently issued threats in a similar vein on three separate occasions in the 1970s, each time prompting the British to deploy a larger military presence to forestall any potential incursion.
On September 20, 1981, British Honduras became the independent State of Belize, a development that infuriated the Guatemalans who insisted on full rights to Belize in its entirety. The Belizeans applied to the UN for recognition, which Guatemala tried but ultimately failed to block with legal arguments. Following extensive lobbying efforts on all sides, the UN decided to admit Belize as a member country, ruling that the Belizeans qualified as a sovereign people, who are separate and distinct from Guatemala by language — English as opposed to Spanish — and by custom and who therefore possessed the natural right to self-determination. Most countries of the world agreed with the UN’s position and recognized Belize as well.
The UN and the international community were not alone in rejecting Guatemala’s central arguments. Prominent legal scholars over the years have also rejected the preponderance of the Guatemalans’ arguments. Having said that, many scholars do agree with some of Guatemala’s smaller claims, particularly as pertains to border modifications and Caribbean Sea access and rights. However, despite repeated efforts by Belize and the international community to secure an amicable resolution to the conflict, the two sides never agreed to sit down to directly negotiate the matters in contention between them.
Belize and Guatemala Agree to Submit to the ICJ
The situation changed in 2019, when Belize’s Foreign Minister successfully persuaded Guatemala that both countries should vote on a referendum to defer to a ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) — referendums that were approved by the voters in both countries. Both countries were supposed to have one year — Guatemala followed by Belize — to prepare and submit their arguments to the court. Citing COVID-19-related delays, Guatemala asked for and received a six-month extension until the end of 2020. Belize is to begin to respond to Guatemala’s formal position at that point and will have 18 months to complete its response. Once Belize submits its response in 2022, the International Court of Justice will begin its deliberations ahead of a final ruling.
It seems highly unlikely that the ICJ will rule overwhelmingly in favor of Guatemala, which is essentially demanding that Belize be disbanded as an independent state and that its territory be incorporated into Guatemala. The judges are duty-bound by the ICJ charter to address relevant international treaties that pertain to the conflict. Given that the 1859 treaty, which Guatemala ratified and subsequently upheld continuously for eighty years, explicitly demarcates Belize’s borders, the court is unlikely to rule on a significant change to Belize’s international borders. Furthermore, the recognition of Belize and the Belizean people’s right to self-determination by the UN and by the plurality of UN member states makes it even more unlikely that the ICJ will order significant territorial concessions to Guatemala. Conversely, given the close proximity of Caribbean maritime borders among Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras, the ICJ is likely to invoke the Law of the Sea, a UN convention, to resolve the maritime dispute, making some allowances to Guatemala.
Traditionally, Belize’s position has been that the conflict with Guatemala should be viewed primarily through the prism of the damages owed by the British for failing to build the railway line in Guatemala’s southern corridor as stipulated by the 1859 treaty. The current equivalent of that sum is estimated to be a few hundreds of millions of dollars, which Belize hopes can be raised from international donors who are eager to help resolve this dispute so as to avert a war in Central America that would be damaging to broader interests. The Belizean government has indicated that it would be willing to countenance minor border revisions and other token concessions to Guatemala as an act of good faith in paving the way to resolving the conflict.
A ruling by the ICJ is expected at some point after Belize’s 2022 submission of documents.
ICJ Decision Anticipated to Strengthen Belize Further
With that said, it is important to note that Belize’s current borders are expected to remain fully intact, and the country is completely open for business. There are many opportunities available in the region adjacent to the western and southern border, particularly in agriculture. The ICJ decision on this longstanding issue is certain to make Belize an even more attractive location for both investors and retirees alike.