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Past and Present Foreign Ministers: Referendum on Pact of Bogotá not needed

The Opposition has called for a referendum on the Pact of Bogotá given its link to the Belize-Guatemala Dispute, but both former and current Foreign Affairs Ministers say a referendum is as unnecessary.

Former Attorney General and Foreign Affairs Minister Wilfred “Sedi” Elrington told The Reporter Thursday that the Pact of Bogotá (officially, the American Treaty on Pacific Settlement) is simply a multilateral compact among countries in the Americas that is aimed at “pacifically” settling disputes among signatories. Elrington opined that such a function is consistent with what the Belizean people already approved in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) referendum held in 2019.

Former Foreign Minister Wilfred "Sedi" Elrington and Foreign Minister Eamon Courtenay both say Pact of Bogota does not need a referendum

Current Foreign Affairs Minister, Hon. Eamon Courtenay, explained Thursday that the 2019 referendum charged the Government of Belize with the duty of bringing the Belize-Guatemala claim to an end, and the ratification of the Pact of Bogotá is merely a step in the execution of that overall mandate.

Courtenay, speaking in the Senate on Monday, said:

“Since 1982, Honduras has included a claim to the Sapodilla Cayes in its Constitution. We do believe that the Honduran claim is credible. Because both Belize and Guatemala claim the Sapodillas in our ICJ case, [and] which said Cayes are claimed by Honduras in its Constitution, it is our understanding that Honduras will feel obliged to intervene in the Belize-Guatemala case now before the ICJ to assert its claim.”

Governed by legal advice, Courtenay explained the government of Belize had engaged in negotiations with the Honduran government to settle the claim. “Regrettably, [the negotiations] have not been successful,” Courtenay lamented. “If, as we believe is likely, Honduras applies to intervene in the case now before the Court, it is likely to affect the Belize Guatemala case.”

He also explained that once the ICJ becomes aware of Honduras’ position, there is a strong possibility that “the Court will not delimit the maritime areas that appertain to the Sapodillas. Therefore, leaving unresolved a large part of our Maritime entitlement.”

The Foreign Minister would go on to explain that such an occurrence could even hinder the Court’s judgment between Belize and Guatemala. “Indeed, the ICJ may decide not to pronounce on sovereignty over the sapodillas as well as even as between Belize and Guatemala,” said Courtenay.

It is the concern about the Court not pronouncing on this aspect of the Belize-Guatemala case that leads both former Foreign Minister Elrington and the present Foreign Minister Courtenay to share the view that the signing onto the Pact of Bogotá is consistent with the mandate the Government of Belize received from the Belizean people via the 2019 Referendum.

Readers may recall that the Referendum question was as follows:

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 determine finally the boundaries of the respective territories and areas of the Parties?

For his part, Elrington opined that it makes perfect sense to do all that is necessary—including signing onto the Pact of Bogotá—to ensure that the mandate to settle “any legal claim of Guatemala … relating to … insular territories and to any maritime areas” is fulfilled by the Government of Belize. In his view, this Pact is just another step in protecting Belize’s insular interests, as the Sapodillas constitute a range of islands found in the southernmost tip of Belize’s Barrier Reef.

While the Special Agreement between Belize and Guatemala is undoubtedly of a narrower, bilateral scope than the multilateral nature of the Pact of Bogotá, both instruments share in a single, core objective: That is, to provide a framework for peaceful settlements of disputes.

The Opposition’s Call for Referendum

Unlike the two foreign ministers, the United Democratic Party (UDP)’s official position is that the ratification of the Pact of Bogotá should have first gone to referendum.

“Thirteen unelected [Senators] cannot decide for four hundred thousand Belizeans whether or not we go the International Courts of Justice (ICJ) to settle a claim on our territory by a foreign country,” the UDP declared via a press release issued after Monday’s Senate meeting.

The UDP also went on to condemn not only the PUP but also the social partner senators for what they claim is “usurping Belizean rights to self-determination,” and turning their backs on democracy by voting to go to the ICJ to settle a “dormant Honduran claim without any attempt to consult the Belizean people.”

The UDP press release also stated, “Appointed parliamentarians have no moral authority to scoff at the Opposition’s call for public consultation and referendum on a matter that will put Belize’s territory on the line. … The UDP’s position on the Pact [of] Bogotá is that it must be taken to the Belizean people to decide in a referendum.”

Peyrefitte also accused the social partner Senators of having had foreknowledge of the motion, which he says he was only made aware of Monday morning before the Senate meeting.

“The way the social partners responded in the senate…was extremely shameful,” he opined. “They clearly knew that that matter was coming to the senate before 8:20 Monday morning. They clearly had a discussion, and they knew that that matter was coming, and they had time to prepare their responses that seem to be very similar to me.”

What is the Pact of Bogotá?

Officially known as the American Treaty on Pacific Settlement, the Pact of Bogotá was signed in April 1948.

The multilateral treaty mandates signatories to pursue “peaceful” means of settling disputes, with first preference being placed on exhausting regional dispute-settlement mechanisms before escalating matters to United Nations bodies.

Article 32 of the Pact of Bogotá states:

“When conciliation procedure previously established in the present treaty or by agreement of the parties does not lead to a solution, and the said parties have not agreed upon an arbitral procedure, either of them shall be entitled to have recourse to the International Court of Justice.”

The Pact also states in Article 31:

“The High Contracting Parties declare that they recognize, in relation to any other American State, the jurisdiction of the Court as compulsory ipso facto, without the necessity of any special agreement so long as the present Treaty is in force, in all disputes of a juridical nature that arise among them concerning…any question of international law.”

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