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Guyana urges no delay to judicial settlement of the border controversy

By Ambassador Odeen Ishmael - Posted September 29th. 2017

On December 16, 2016, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon decided that the existing UN Good Offices process which began in 1990 in order to find a solution to the Guyana-Venezuela border controversy would conclude at the end of 2017. A UN media statement revealed: "If, by the end of 2017, the Secretary-General concludes that no significant progress has been made towards arriving at a full agreement for the solution of the controversy, he will choose the International Court of Justice (ICJ) as the next means of settlement, unless the governments of Guyana and Venezuela jointly request that he refrain from doing so."

Two months later, on February 27 this year, the Secretary-General appointed Norwegian diplomat Dag Halvor Nylander as a mediator to help find a solution to the border controversy between Guyana and Venezuela. Nylander has since been making regular visits to Georgetown and Caracas for meetings with government leaders to explore and propose options for solving the controversy arising from the Venezuelan claim that the 1899 arbitral award settling the then existing border dispute is null and void.

Venezuela's statement

Since the December announcement, the Venezuelan government remained noticeably silent on the decision by the Secretary-General to ask the ICJ to rule on the issue. However, on September 15, it finally acknowledged this fact after a meeting between President Nicolas Maduro and Nylander. In a public statement, the Venezuelan government stated: "The UN Good Offices process will continue until the end of the year, when the organization will determine if significant progress has been made in the dispute, otherwise the case will be referred to the International Court of Justice."

But, a few hours later, in a sudden reversal, it amended its statement by reverting to its long-held position that a settlement should be reached by mediation, and even claiming that "mediation will be supported by the Secretary-General of the United Nations in order to find a practical and satisfactory solution, as set out in the [1966] Geneva Agreement."

Meanwhile, Guyana has remained adamant that the ICJ must finally decide on the issue. On September 13, Foreign Affairs Minister Carl Greenidge firmly stated that Guyana was in no mood to entertain any request for more time beyond this year-end to decide whether the controversy should be taken to ICJ.

No doubt, the Venezuelan government's ambiguous position over the decision to involve the ICJ is an indication that it is fearful of an international judicial decision on the issue. It has always insisted on mediation even though that process has failed to show any result ever since the involvement of the UN Secretary General in 1982.

Guyana urges no delay in ICJ involvement

This latest about-face by the Venezuelan government has certainly become irksome to the Guyanese government. President David Granger spoke on this matter at the UN General Assembly in New York on September 20. He stated:

"Guyana looks to the international community to ensure that Venezuela is not allowed to thwart the processes of judicial settlement, which is the clear and agreed path to peace and justice. . . Four UN Secretaries-General have been seized of the Venezuelan claims. The choice has become one between just and peaceful settlement, in accordance with international law, and a Venezuelan posture of attrition that is increasingly more blustering and militaristic. In this matter, protraction is the enemy of resolution, and the ally of sustained conflict."

Granger reminded the General Assembly that former Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and his successor, António Guterres, had already agreed that the ICJ will be the next means of peaceful settlement if by the end of December 2017, unless Guyana and Venezuela jointly request that mediation should continue.

It is obvious that Guyana will not request any change to this decision since it has not seen any success in the UN mediation efforts. Guyana maintains that the international arbitration award of 1899 decided on the border; that there is no border dispute and what exists is a controversy arising over Venezuela's claim that the 1899 award is null and void; and that the Geneva Agreement signed by Venezuela, the United Kingdom and Guyana in 1966 calls for a settlement of the "controversy" and not of the border. On the other hand, while Venezuela continues to insist on the nullity of the arbitration award, it has never presented a legal case to verify its position, but it demands a "practical" settlement of the border.

International guarantee of Guyana's borders

With a judicial settlement expected in due course, Guyana must decide to have its territorial integrity guaranteed by the international community. Back in the early 1960s, the People's Progressive Party (PPP) government, hoping to lead the country into independence, had plans in this direction. On July 17, 1968, during debate in the National Assembly on the motion denouncing the "Leoni decree" by which Venezuela claimed a twelve-mile strip of Guyana's continental shelf off the Essequibo coast, Opposition Leader Dr. Cheddi Jagan explained:

"When we were in the government we said that even if it may appear that we were surrendering part of our sovereignty, we are prepared to sign such a treaty with the Great Powers, who will not only see that Guyana remains neutral, but who will guarantee our territorial integrity. Perhaps, it would have been a surrender of a bit of sovereignty in that we were saying they would supervise our neutrality."

Dr. Jagan pointed out that Austria, after it regained independence in 1955, signed a treaty with Russia, France, Britain, and the USA during the mid-1960s to guarantee its territorial integrity. He felt the Forbes Burnham-led People's National Congress-United Force (PNC-UF) coalition government should have negotiated a similar treaty when the country attained independence, and blamed it "for failing to lodge, in conjunction with the British, at the United Nations, the boundaries of Guyana at the time of independence, for failure to negotiate a treaty of guarantee of our territorial integrity with the Great Powers, East and West."

With a yet unclear Venezuelan position on a judicial solution, one is left to wonder if that government will be willing to accept the ruling by the ICJ if the decision is not in its favor. It is, therefore, imperative for the Guyana government to consider negotiating an international guarantee of the country's borders as soon as the judicial settlement of the controversy is finally reached.

September 27, 2017

(Dr. Odeen Ishmael, Ambassador Emeritus (retired), historian and author, served as Guyana's ambassador in the USA (1993-2003), Venezuela 2003-2011) and Kuwait and Qatar (2011-2014). He actively participated in meetings of UNASUR from 2003 to 2010 and has written extensively on South American integration issues.)
(The views expressed in this article are solely those of the writer and not necessarily those of the Government of Guyana.)

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