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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Old Belize-Guatemalan Land Dispute Nears End

Source: World Politics Review (May 23, 2019)


Three years ago, the International Court of Justice began deliberating Guatemala’s claim that it is the rightful owner of half of Belize’s territory, a dispute that took root four centuries ago and has a checkered history.

Guatemala claims 4,250 square miles out of a total of 8,867 square miles, according to Reuters (May 9, 2019).

“Conflicts between Belizeans and Guatemalans exist on both the sea and land areas,” according to Belize-Guatemala Territorial Dispute and its Implications for Conservation (March 1, 2009), a paper of the Institute of Marine Affairs and Resource Management, National Taiwan Ocean University. “They range from illegal fishing, illegal settlements, illegal farming, poaching of wildlife, illegal harvest of forest products, illegal settlements, robberies, ambush attacks on the Belizean military and murders on both sides of the border.”

Marta Larra, a spokeswoman for Guatemala’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, estimated that it could be about four years before a final court decision, reported Reuters (May 9, 2019).

“The final resolution of the dispute will broaden and deepen the good relations that exist between Guatemala and Belize,” said the Guatemalan foreign ministry.

In May 2019, after referendums in both nations, the dispute was handed over to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the principal judicial organ of the United Nations. Both Central American nations agreed to abide by the decision of the court in The Hague, Netherlands.

In response to the April 2020 request of Guatemala for a 12-month extension in the filing of papers due to delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, “the International Çourt of Justice extended from 8 June 2020 to 8 December 2020 and from 8 June 2021 to 8 June 2022, the respective time-limits for the filing of the Memorial of the Republic of Guatemala and the Counter-Memorial of Belize in the case concerning Guatemala’s Territorial, Insular and Maritime Claim (Guatemala/Belize),” according to an ICJ press release (April 24, 2020).

I am Belizean by blood, a United States citizen through birth and British through naturalization.

Belize is a parliamentary constitutional monarchy based on the British parliamentary system.

It is a stable -- and peaceful -- democratic enclave in a region plagued by instability and foreign intervention. Guatemala is no exception.

From the mid-to-late 19th century, Guatemala suffered deep civil strife. In the early 20th century, it was ruled by a series of dictators backed by the United Fruit Company and the United States government. In 1944, the authoritarian leader, Jorge Ubico, was overthrown by a pro-democratic military coup, initiating a decade-long revolution that led to sweeping social and economic reforms. Then, in 1954, a U.S.-backed military coup ended the revolution and installed a dictatorship, according to State Terrorism and Neoliberalism: The North in the South (2009).

From 1960 to 1996, Guatemala endured a civil war fought between the U.S.-backed government and leftist rebels, a war that included genocidal massacres of the Maya population perpetrated by the military, reported The New York Times (February 26, 1999). The United Nations negotiated a peace accord.

It sometimes seemed that Guatemala resurrected its claim of Belize when it was politically expedient. However, the International Court of Justice will make its decision based on treaties, not circumstances.


A Hawker Siddeley Harrier GR3, the first jet fighter capable of vertical take-off and landing, at the Belize International Airport, where six of the British aircraft were sent in November 1975 to discourage Guatemalan aggression


How Guatemala became Spanish

Born into the prominent Borgia family in Aragon (now Spain), Pope Alexander VI drew a line of demarcation dividing the New World into land, resources and people claimed by Spain and Portugal. The two empires, at the time the only European explorers there, agreed to the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, which was signed in the Spanish city and authenticated at Setubal, Portugal, according to National Geographic.

The treaty was signed by King John II of Portugal; King Ferdinand II of Aragon (now Spain); Queen Isabella I of Castille (now Spain), and Prince John of Asturias and Girona (now Spain), the son of the Spanish monarchs.

“Spain was given exclusive rights to all newly discovered and undiscovered lands in the region west of the line. Portuguese expeditions were to keep to the east of the line. Neither power was to occupy any territory already in the hands of a Christian ruler,” according to Britannica.

The nation that is Guatemala today was to the west of the line.

History of Guatemala’s claim

In LSE: Latin America and Caribbean Centre (April 8, 2019), Victor Bulmer-Thomas, a specialist on the Americas who wrote The Economic History of Belize: From 17th Century to Post-Independence (2012), unraveled the history:

“The ultimate origins of the territorial dispute between Belize and Guatemala lie in the 17th century, when British settlers and their slaves came to the coasts of Central America to cut logwood (a dyewood from which fabulous profits were being made at the time).

“The Spanish crown considered these intruders to be mere pirates, and the British crown, at first, did nothing to protect them. It was not until 1763 that Spain, as part of the Treaty of Paris, reluctantly gave these ‘Baymen’ the right to cut logwood within a small area that remained subject to Spanish sovereignty.”

How Manila Became Spanish and Martinique French

(The Treaty of Paris of 1763 concluded the French-British conflicts of the Seven Years’ War (called the French and Indian War in North America), according to Britannica. It was signed by representatives of Great Britain and Hanover on one side and France and Spain on the other, with Portugal expressly understood to be included.

(The Treaty of Paris of 1763 reapportioned territories. France renounced to Britain all the mainland of North America east of the Mississippi, excluding New Orleans and its environs; the Caribbean islands of Grenada, Saint Vincent, Dominica and Tobago. France also renounced its conquests made since 1749 in India or the East Indies. Britain, in return, restored to France the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe, Martinique, Marie-Galante and Desirade; the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon off Newfoundland; the West African colony of Goree (Senegal); and Belle-Ile-en-Mer off Brittany. Britain also ceded Saint Lucia to France. At the same time, Spain recovered Havana and Manila, ceded East and West Florida to the British and received Louisiana, including New Orleans, in compensation from the French, who evacuated Hanover, Hesse and Brunswick, according to Britannica.)

Bay of Honduras

The Treaty of Paris addressed the Bay of Honduras explicitly:

“XVII. His Britannick Majesty shall cause to be demolished all the fortifications which his subjects shall have created in the bay of Honduras, and other places of the territory of Spain in that part of the world, four months after the ratification of the present treaty; and his Catholick Majesty shall not permit his Brittanick Majesty’s subjects, or their workmen, to be disturbed or molested under any pretence whatsoever in the said places, in their occupation of cutting, loading, and carrying away logwood; abd for this purpose, they may build, without hindrance, and occupy, without interruption, the houses and magazines necessary for them, for their families, and for their effects . . . “

The historian, Bulmer-Thomas continued:

“These rights were modestly extended by treaty in 1783 and 1786, when the boundaries of what had since become an official British settlement were agreed. A resident British Superintendent also was dispatched to ensure that the settlers complied with their legal obligations.

“This did not stop Spain trying to dislodge the settlers in times of war, however, and the last attempt was in 1798 (celebrated today in Belize on the 10th of September as the Battle of St. George’s Caye). Despite having defeated the Spanish forces involved (with the help of their African slaves), Great Britain continued to regard Spain as the sovereign power. In fact, this recognition continued even two decades after the collapse of the Spanish Empire in Central America and Mexico in 1821.”


The Kekchi Mayan village of San Miguel in Belize’s southern Toledo District (Photo by Jessica Vincent)


Baymen Pushed Boundaries

“Having become independent from Spain in 1821 and from Mexico in 1823, Central America went on to function as a federation until 1838, at which point it splintered into five separate republics (Guatemala, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua).

“By this time, the Baymen – with the connivance of the Superintendent – had pushed the boundaries of their settlement far south of the limits agreed with Spain in 1786. As soon, therefore, as Great Britain had won grudging acceptance from the United States that the ‘Settlement in the Bay of Honduras’ did not challenge the Monroe Doctrine, she pushed Guatemala to sign a boundary treaty based on effective occupation. The resulting Anglo-Guatemalan Treaty was ratified by both sides in 1859, with the country coming to be known as the colony of British Honduras in 1862 (the name was changed to Belize in 1973).

(In the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, President James Monroe declared that the Old World (Europe) and the New World had different systems and must remain distinct spheres, according to Britannica. There was concern in both Britain and the United States that the continental powers would attempt to restore Spain’s former colonies in Latin America, many of which had become newly independent nations.

(Monroe warned Britain and Spain not to establish footholds in Oregon, California or Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, according to Britannica. Belize is located on the Yucatan Peninsula, bordering Mexico and Guatemala.)

Bulmer-Thomas continued:

“(The Anglo-Guatemalan Treaty of 1859) should have been the end of the matter.

“However, Article 7 of the treaty called for the construction by both parties of a means of communication from the highlands of Guatemala to the Caribbean coast. Due to the ambiguity of the article, an Additional Convention was signed in 1863 making clear that the British government agreed to pay £50,000 towards the cost of a road or ‘other line of communication’. Guatemala, however, was unable to ratify the Convention by the agreed date and the British government refused to allow an extension. The Convention therefore lapsed.

“Despite this, the two sides continued to regard the 1859 treaty as valid and even made efforts to demarcate the shared boundaries at various points over the next eighty years.”

U.S. Considers Belize for Freed Slaves

(In July 1863, months after U.S. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves, John Willis Menard boarded a small ship for Belize City, then the capital of British Honduras. Later to become the first African American elected to the House of Representatives, Menard represented Lincoln in his journey to determine whether the British colony was suitable for freed Americans, according to Smithsonian Magazine (March 6, 2018).

(“American companies with business interests in the region made (British Honduras) one possible option for colonization,” according to Smithsonian Magazine. “While there, Menard noted the potential of the landscape for a colony of newly freed African Americans, but also worried over the absence of housing and proper facilities. Although Menard announced his support for a colony in British Honduras and wrote a favorable report to Lincoln upon returning in the fall of 1863, he worried about lack of support for such a project. As historians Phillip Magness and Sebastian Page write in Colonization After Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement, ‘Menard, long among the most vocal supporters of Liberian migration, conceded that he was torn between resettlement abroad and working to improve the lot of blacks at home.’”)

Guatemalan Threats to Invade

Relations between Guatemala and Belize continued to be unstable. Historian Bulmer-Thomas wrote:

“In 1939, the Guatemalan government unilaterally abrogated the treaty on the grounds that the United Kingdom (U.K.) was in breach of Article 7. A threat of invasion followed, and a British military presence was established.”

According to the research paper, Belize-Guatemala Territorial Dispute and its Implications for Conservation (March 1, 2009):

“In 1945, the new Guatemalan constitution declared Belize to be part of Guatemalan territory and threatened to invade Belize. Similar threats occurred in 1972, 1975 and 1977, each time an increased British military presence prevented the invasions.

“By the 1950s however, Belize’s population had increased to 60,000. This consisted of the indigenous Maya, the British, the Africans, and their descendants, successive waves of migration had added Indian, Garifuna, Mestizo, West Indian, and other residents – a new people now called Belizeans who wanted independence.

“The Independence movement grew rapidly and by 1961, following the U.N. Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, Britain agreed that Belize could proceed to independence whenever it so desired. The Guatemalan claim, however, prevented this from happening.”

Bulmer-Thomas wrote:

“Diplomatic efforts to find a solution were then pursued between Guatemala and the U.K., with Belizean politicians becoming involved from 1961 onwards. Ultimately, however, these efforts proved futile, and Belize became independent in 1981 with the dispute unresolved. And despite independence, the UK continued to keep troops in Belize as part of a defense guarantee, whereas Guatemala continued to claim the territory.”

The U.K. maintained a deterrent force (British Forces Belize) in the country to protect it from invasion by Guatemala. During the 1980s, this included a battalion and an independent military unit of the Royal Air Force of Harrier fighter jets.

According to Bulmer-Thomas:

“Guatemala finally recognized the independent state of Belize in 1991, and the British defense guarantee soon ended. However, Guatemala subsequently made clear that, while she recognized the independence of Belize, she did not accept its boundaries.”

In 1994, the main British force left, but the U.K. maintained a training presence with the British Army Training and Support Unit Belize (BATSUB) and an independent military unit within the Army Air Corp until 2011 when the last British Forces left Ladyville Barracks, with the exception of seconded advisors, according to Dion E. Phillips’ The Military of Belize.

Bulmer-Thomas wrote:

“This deeply unsatisfactory state of (unresolved) affairs persisted for nearly two decades and despite many rounds of bilateral negotiations. Finally, in 2008, the two sides reached a Special Agreement under which they undertook to resolve the dispute via the ICJ (International Court of Justice).”

The agreement required each country to hold a referendum on going to the International Court of Justice. Guatemalans voted in April 2018. The turnout was 25 percent, and 95 percent voted in favor, according to World Politics Review (May 23, 2019). Belizeans voted in May 2019: 55.4 percent voted yes in a turnout of 65 percent.

“The decision to go to the ICJ is much more controversial in Belize than in Guatemala,” said Bulmer-Thomas in World Politics Review. “This is understandable, as Belize faces the possibility of losing a large chunk of territory that it already occupies, while Guatemala only stands to lose a claim to a territory that it does not actually possess.”

Officials from the U.S. State Department, the European Union and the Organization of American States (OAS) welcomed the outcome of the Belizean referendum,” reported Reuters (May 9, 2019).


Belize’s Prime Minister John Briceno (left) visited Guatemala in June 2021 at the invitation of Guatemala President Alejandro Giammattei (right). They stood in front of a reminder of their nations’ Mayan heritage and each other’s flags.


Court Arguments

The 2008 agreement limits the kind of court arguments to precedent, well-established principles of international law and international conventions. The judges will not be able to apply the principle of ex aequo et bono, which would allow the case to be arbitrated based on fairness rather than the letter of the law. It would have allowed Guatemalans, for example, to argue that its unequal relationship with Britain in 1859 put it at a disadvantage when negotiating the Angle-Guatemalan Treaty, according to Bulmer-Thomas in World Politics Review.

Bulmer-Thomas further explained:

“The judges, therefore, will first look at the relevant international treaties, of which the most important is the one signed in 1859. It specifies the boundaries of Belize in some detail and, if the court finds the treaty valid, will largely settle the case.

“Given that the 1859 treaty was ratified by both sides and implemented by Guatemala for 80 years; that Guatemala has never occupied any part of Belize; and that Belize’s boundaries have been recognized by virtually all independent states, it can almost certainly be assumed that the court’s final ruling will confirm the current territorial boundaries of Belize.

“However, the southern maritime boundaries of Belize overlap not only with those of Guatemala but also those of Honduras, so the ICJ is expected to apply the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to settle the matter.”

The court’s ruling is to be implemented by a bi-national commission, the composition of which is to be agreed within three months of the court’s decision, reported Reuters (June 12, 2019).

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