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Guatemala votes to send territory dispute with Belize to ICJ

April 16, 2018

Though the referdeum was marked by low turnout, an overwhelming majority of Guatemalans who voted want the Hague to have final say over the 200-year-old conflict with their neighbor Belize. But the deal is not yet done.

Guatemala Referendum ballots show yes and no options on a table as someone casts a vote
Image: Reuters/L. Echeverria

In Sunday's referendum over the future of the country's territorial dispute with neighboring Belize, Guatemalans voted overwhelmingly to ask the International Court of Justice (ICJ), based in the Hague, to resolve the centuries-old conflict.

With more than 92 percent of the vote counted, some 95 percent had voted in favor of letting the UN's top court have final judicial authority over an area of some 12,270 square kilometers (4,737 square miles) — about half of Belize — and the border between the two neighboring countries.

Low yet historic turnout

Turnout for the referendum was low, however, with an abstention rate of over 75 percent. Past Guatemalan referendums on constitutional changes have also been marked by high abstention and voter apathy.

Nonetheless, Guatemalan officials pointed out that the turnout was the country's highest-ever for a referendum.

Judge Maria Mijangos, the president of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, which organized the vote, said that, "Today we should feel satisfied and celebrate this civic success that we have undertaken," the Guatemalan news agency AGN reported.

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales holds up a ink-stained finger from voting
Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales voted in his country's referendum on Sunday, though many of his compatriots did notImage: Reuters/L. Echeverria

President Jimmy Morales, who had made the "fight to recover Belize" part of his campaign platform, welcomed the Guatemalan peoples' decision to pursue "a peaceful and democratic solution to solve a 200-year-old conflict."

It now all depends on Belize

The territorial dispute dates back to the 18th century when the Spanish Empire, which controlled Guatemala as a colony, granted the British Crown access rights over Belize. The latter became a British colony under the name British Honduras and eventually gained its independence in 1981.

While Guatemala recognized Belize's independence in 1990s, it has never dropped its claims over roughly the entire southern half of the English-speaking country, including island and maritime areas. 

The referendum was the result of a 2008 accord signed by both Guatemala and Belize that said the countries' citizens would have the right to decide whether to send the territorial dispute to the ICJ.

Belize has promised to have its own referendum at a yet unspecified date in the future. If the "no" vote subsequently wins, both countries will have to seek an alternative way to resolve the conflict.

Infografik Karte Zwischen Guatemala und Belize umstittenes Gebiet ENG

cmb/rt (Reuters, EFE)

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