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Guatemala votes on sending Belize border dispute to international court

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
AFP

Guatemala City (AFP) – Guatemalan voters are being called out Sunday to decide whether the International Court of Justice (ICJ) should rule on a border dispute with neighboring Belize that goes back more than 200 years.

The long-running disagreement has seen tensions spike from time to time, such as two years ago when Guatemala mobilized 3,000 troops along the densely wooded unmarked border zone after a Guatemalan teen was fatally shot there after a Belize border patrol came under fire.

An investigation by the Organization of American States ended up finding that the Belize patrol was not responsible for the 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 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.

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 future 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.

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