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Challenges for Guyana's National Border Institute

By Ambassador Odeen Ishmael - Posted October 5th. 2016

On August 4, 2016, the Guyana government announced plans to establish a National Border Institute aimed at providing advice and ideas on border related matters, and to enable research to ensure the maintenance of Guyana's territorial integrity. The Institute is expected to be a repository of all documents, maps, charts relating to Guyana's territorial boundaries with Venezuela, Suriname and Brazil.

As part of its research activities, this body will be also be tasked with ensuring the maintenance of Guyana's territorial integrity as well as to address issues relating to the nation's air space and continental shelf.

According to the government, the institute will be semi-autonomous under the management of a board of directors, headed by the foreign minister. The board will comprise representatives from the attorney general's office, the army, civil aviation, the maritime administration department, the national archives, the lands and surveys commission, and the University of Guyana. The services of other Guyanese with the relevant knowledge will also be utilized.

On its establishment, the institute will, no doubt, function also as a "think tank" to develop and discuss ideas relating to Guyana's border issues. It should also venture into the area of public diplomacy by encouraging reputable persons (including non-Guyanese) to publish op-ed articles supportive of Guyana's position on the Guyana-Venezuela issue (in both the local and foreign news media), and audio and video commentaries also for local and foreign distribution and for publication on the internet. At the same time, it should be a most important provider of resource materials for educational institutions as part of their curriculum in imparting knowledge of the history of the nation's border relations. And to ensure its connection with the general public, it must encourage Guyanese to submit their views on a continuous basis on how to deal with specific problems surrounding the country's boundary issues.


The proposal for this forum has its antecedents from at least 1999 when, under the PPP administration, a parliamentary border and national security committee was formed following consultation between President Bharrat Jagdeo and Opposition Leader Desmond Hoyte. The report the committee submitted in June 2001 to Jagdeo recommended, inter alia, that the highest level of consultations for discussion and resolution of issues pertaining to border and national security issues should take place between the president and the leader of the opposition. At the level of the National Assembly, it also expressed the necessity for a parliamentary standing committee to be established to tackle border and national security issues through the engagement of ministers and shadow ministers.

In a statement after the submission, David Granger who co-chaired the committee, emphasized that the bipartisan process should be supported by a technical or academic component in the form of an institute of border studies, a strengthened frontiers unit of the foreign affairs ministry and the review or consolidation of existing institutions to prevent duplication in functions.

On October 15, 2013, Granger, as opposition leader, urged the foreign ministry to establish a permanent national borders commission to boost institutional strengthening on issues regarding Guyana's territorial integrity and to take responsibility for accumulating data and documents on territorial matters. He had earlier made this proposal during a meeting in January 2012 with Dr. Norman Girvan, the UN "Good Officer" tasked with maintaining contacts with Guyana and Venezuela on the border issues on behalf of the Secretary General.

In November 2013, Granger followed up by requesting Prime Minister Samuel Hinds to inform the National Assembly whether the government intended "to work towards establishing a standing parliamentary committee to address, specifically, border and national security issues as recommended by the border and national security committee" in its report of June, 2001.

In response to Granger's proposal, Prime Minister Samuel Hinds on December 19, 2013 informed the National Assembly that the government had no plans to establish a parliamentary committee to specifically address border issues. He explained that there was already a parliamentary committee on security, which had been established by an amendment to the constitution and which was intended to specifically be the forum for parliamentary consideration of national security matters including border issues.

Documentary tasks of the Institute

Now, with the firm decision made, it is expected that knowledgeable persons will be appointed to conduct the work of the Border Institute.

On its establishment, the border institute will most likely begin to gather and archive documents related to the British and Venezuelan cases presented to the arbitration tribunal in 1898-1899. While the Foreign Ministry archives may have much of these, no doubt, the Institute will have to explore the possibility of obtaining additional documentary resources from the British Foreign Office. In addition, a wealth of material is located within the archives of British, American and French newspapers which covered the arbitration in great detail and published daily reports of the proceedings. The Dutch and the Spanish archives hold a treasure of related documents as well.

Significantly, the US Library of Congress has a large collection of related documents including the report of the US Venezuelan Border Commission that functioned in 1896-1897 after it was established by the US Congress on a direct request by President Grover Cleveland. All of the documents emanating from the report of this Commission were provided to the Venezuelan government by the US government to assist the former to prepare its case to the arbitration tribunal. In those days, the United States was an avid supporter of Venezuela with regard to the border dispute.

Guyana-Suriname border

With respect to Guyana's boundary with Suriname, the Corentyne River boundary is still not yet clearly defined. (The maritime boundary was finally settled in 2007 after the PPP administration headed by President Jagdeo decisively moved to request the intervention of the Law of the Sea tribunal, to which Suriname agreed.) Currently, the entire Corentyne River is regarded as being totally owned by Suriname, though there exists no specific agreement to this effect between the colonial powers (the United Kingdom and Holland) or between the independent nations of Guyana and Suriname. The task of the border institute has to be aimed at developing ideas and methodology to modify this situation. It will have to form a strong case to show that the boundary runs along the thalweg (the mid-channel) of the river. Alternatively, the case must be made for the unimpeded and free use of the river by Guyanese if Suriname is to maintain ownership of the entire river.

With consideration to the New River Triangle, a comprehensive collection of documents from all sources to support Guyana's ownership is necessary. Significantly, the archives of the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as the British Foreign Office should be consulted to obtain all the background documents relative to the fixing of the Brazil-British Guiana-Suriname tri-junction point at the Kutari River, (the source of the Corentyne River) in 1936-which definitively fixed the south-east boundary of Guyana with Suriname and Brazil, and similarly, Brazil's boundary with Guyana and Suriname at that point.

Guyana-Brazil boundary

As to Guyana's boundary with Brazil which was finally settled in 1904, it is important that documents relating to the Brazil-British Guiana border dispute which was arbitrated in 1901-1904 should be compiled. This is imperative, considering that the area ceded to Brazil (roughly 4,000 square miles of territory bounded by the Ireng, Takutu and Cotinga Rivers) was claimed by Venezuela during the 1898-1899 arbitration, but it was awarded to British Guiana.

It is of interest to note that in Venezuela's current claim to Guyana's territory (which it says it "lost" in the 1899), that country is not asserting any demand to the area ceded in 1904 to Brazil after the arbitration conducted by the King of Italy. Logically, Venezuela should have also extended its spurious claim to this part of Brazil, but as is generally known, logic is not always synonymous with international political behaviour. Obviously, Brazil's size and political and military power are determining factors for Venezuela's reluctance in this instance.

October 5, 2016

(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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