Guatemala votes on international court handling Belize border dispute

Electoral officials in Guatemala prepare materials for a referendum on whether the country's border dispute with Belize should go to the International Court of Justice

Guatemala City (AFP) – Guatemala voted Sunday on whether to send a long-running border dispute with neighboring Belize to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for final resolution.

The disagreement, whose roots go back two centuries, has seen tensions spike from time to time. Two years ago Guatemala mobilized 3,000 troops along the densely forested unmarked border zone after an incident in which a Guatemalan teen was fatally shot.

A Belize border patrol had opened fire under being shot at, but an investigation by the Organization of American States ended up finding it not responsible for the teen’s death.

The referendum was agreed under a 2008 accord to send the dispute to The Hague-based ICJ, if the populations of Guatemala and Belize approved.

Belize has not yet fixed a date for its referendum on the issue, although officials say it could take place next year.

The Guatemalan plebiscite question asks voters to respond “yes” or “no” as to whether any legal claims by Guatemala against Belize relating to its territories “should be submitted to the International Court of Justice for final settlement” and boundary determination.

The country has an electorate of 7.5 million people, but analysts believe turnout could be lackluster, perhaps as low as 10 percent.

The head of Guatemala’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal, Maria Eugenia Mijangos, told reporters that voter apathy was a big risk. Efforts by Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales to boost turnout have foundered on the rocks of his low popularity.

– ‘Very important issue’ –

On Sunday, Mijangos said: “We are calling on all Guatemalans, especially the youth making up the majority of the electorate, to participate, to go to polling stations to put in their vote on this very important issue which has taken so many years to find a solution to.”

Morales said as he voted that the two countries had “very good bilateral relations” and he hoped he dispute could be resolved.  

Guatemala has made claims over more than half of Belize’s territory, dating to when its English-speaking neighbor was a British colony known as British Honduras.

The border issue goes back to 1783 when Spain, the former colonial power over what is now Guatemala, gave Britain the right to occupy the territory that became Belize and exploit its timber in exchange for combating piracy. A century later, it became a British colony.

In 1964, British Honduras won the right to self-government, then in 1973 renamed itself Belize. 

Independence came in 1981, though a British military presence remained until the mid-1990s because Guatemala refused for a decade to recognize it as a new country.

Guatemala’s voting was to close at 6 pm (0000 GMT Monday). Observers from 25 countries were on hand to monitor the polling.