THE GENEVA AGREEMENT
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The two day Geneva conference on the Guyana-Venezuela border issue was held on the 16 and 17 February 1966.The Guyana team at the conference, which joined up with the British delegation, included Burnham, Minister of State Shridath Ramphal and a group of advisers. On the first day of the conference, opening speeches were delivered by the British Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart and Venezuelan Foreign Minister Ignacio Iribarren Borges. Following them, Burnham delivered an exceptionally strong speech in which he told the delegates that colonial Guyana (and ultimately the new independent state of Guyana) was not prepared to yield even a square inch of soil to Venezuela.
Further discussions continued on the following day with speeches made by the Foreign Ministers of both Great Britain and Venezuela who exchanged numerous suggestions for solving the controversy. Intense discussions took place on a draft agreement, which a team of British and Venezuelan officials, as well as Ramphal, had drawn up in the days preceding the conference, and by late afternoon, a consensus was reached. Shortly after, the British and Venezuelan Foreign Ministers, Michael Stewart and Ignacio Iribarren Borges, as well as Burnham, signed the document which became known as the Geneva Agreement.
The Agreement specified that a "Mixed Commission" of Guyanese and Venezuelan representatives would be established to seeking "satisfactory solutions for the practical settlement of the controversy between Venezuela and the United Kingdom which has arisen as the result of the Venezuelan contention that the Arbitral Award of 1899 about the frontier between British Guiana and Venezuela is null and void".
The Agreement also provided that "no new claim or enlargement of an existing claim to territorial sovereignty in these territories (of Venezuela and British Guiana) shall be asserted while this Agreement is in force, nor shall any claim whatsoever be asserted otherwise than in the Mixed Commission while that Commission is in being".
The British Government, as stipulated in the Agreement, would remain as a party to it even after Guyana achieved independence.
In the days after the conference concluded, there were intense discussions in the media in Venezuela, the United Kingdom and Guyana on the significance of the Geneva Agreement. Venezuela, for its part, saw the Geneva Agreement as the "reopening" of the border dispute, and Foreign Minister Iribarren Borges said that the agreement actually meant that the 1899 decision would be reconsidered. This position was rebutted by both the British and Guyana Governments who insisted that the controversy was really over the Venezuelan contention that the 1899 Award was null and void, and the Agreement was not aimed at cancelling the Award or revising the boundary.
In Guyana, the PPP was critical of the agreement claiming that it provided Venezuela with a legal base to continue to press its claim to Guyana's territory. It stated that the Guyana Government yielded ground at the conference on vital issues with the result that Guyana was committed to joint action with Venezuela in seeking a solution to a dispute which had no legal basis but which was now given international status. In addition to this, the Party claimed that Venezuela appeared to have been given special consideration with regard to the exploitation of the natural resources of what that country calls Guyana Essequibo.
The PNC UF coalition Government, on the other hand, welcomed the Agreement, and on the 5 March 1966, Prime Minister Burnham insisted that there was no question of the Geneva Agreement being regarded by his Government as a compromise on Guyana's territorial integrity. Interestingly, in a separate comment, Attorney General Shridath Ramphal admitted that the Agreement became a pre-requisite for Guyana achieving its independence.
A resolution to approve the Geneva Agreement was tabled in the British Guiana House of Assembly during April. In a general debate on the 28 April 1966, the Government and the PPP disagreed strongly, but it was finally approved with the PPP voting against.
The aim of the Geneva Agreement was to afford Venezuela an opportunity in essentially a bilateral context to have examined its contention of nullity of the 1899 Award. However, Venezuela never showed an inclination to have this examination done.
In the maintenance by Venezuela of its claim, the Geneva Agreement was seen as a logical part of the process of examination of documentary material to establish nullity, the onus being on Venezuela to produce such evidence. But there was an important difference. The Geneva Agreement unlike "an offer" was now an international treaty which was legally binding. Thus the Geneva Agreement provided an agreed legal mechanism for continuing the process started in 1963, that is, of examining the Venezuelan contention of nullity of the 1899 Award.
The provisions of the Geneva Agreement also maintained the position taken by the British in 1962, that is, the Agreement was in no way related to substantive talks about the revision of the frontier. The Geneva Agreement was therefore a legal basis for dealing with the political situation caused by Venezuela asserting and maintaining a claim to two thirds of Guyana's territory.
From the beginning, Venezuela ignored the main role of the Agreement. The Mixed Commission attempted to deal with the Venezuelan contention of nullity of the 1899 Award, and at its very first meeting later in 1966, the Guyanese Commissioners invited by their Venezuelan counterparts to produce evidence to support their contention of nullity. However, the Venezuelans took the position that the Commission should not be concerned with such a question but rather with the revision of the frontier. But the Geneva Agreement never allowed for such a demand. The Mixed Commission in subsequent meetings in the post-1966 period was unable to fulfil its mandate largely because Venezuela declined to deal with the question of their contention of the nullity of the 1899 Award.
In citing the Geneva Agreement, the Government of Venezuela attempted at subsequent meetings of the Mixed Commission to limit its scope and application. Venezuelan officials emphasised on the words "the practical settlement of the controversy" to the exclusion of all other phrases in the relevant provisions. Shortly after, they began to describe the issue as a "territorial controversy". However, Guyana stated that there was no "territorial controversy" - only a controversy over the contention by Venezuela of the invalidity of that the Arbitral Award of 1899.