The World of International Organizations

ICJ steps into Guyana-Venezuela border dispute

Yuruaní-tepui, a mesa partly in the area disputed by Guyana and Venezuela (AN/Fernando Flores)
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The International Court of Justice ruled on Friday it has jurisdiction to settle a border dispute going back more than a century to colonial-era claims over a resources-rich jungle region between Guyana and Venezuela.

Justices decided on a 12-4 vote they can hear Guyana’s 2018 request for them to intervene and examine how an international tribunal drew up the border between the two South American nations in 1899. Guyana argues the 121-year-old arbitration decision is valid, but Venezuela refuses to abide by it.

“No other organ than a judicial one is more appropriate to determine it,” ICJ Judge Peter Tomka of Slovakia wrote in a separation declaration, adding that six decades of failed efforts show “no agreement can ever be reached” between Guyana and Venezuela if left to sort out their differences on their own.

Venezuela reached a so-called Geneva Agreement with the United Kingdom, in 1966, the same year Guyana gained its independence from the British colonial power. It called for mediation — and for the U.N. chief to step in, if the mediation efforts failed.

In February 2017, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres appointed Norwegian diplomat Dag Halvor Nylander, who handled the Colombian peace process, to the task of seeking agreement among Guyana and Venezuela. Guterres’ predecessor, former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, had also used his “good offices” in trying to end the dispute.

But in January 2018, Guterres referred the dispute to the ICJ the United Nations’ main court for settling disputes among nations — after deciding the two sides were stalemated.

Diamonds, gold, timber … and offshore oil

During the 1890s, the United States encouraged Guyana and Venezuela to submit to binding arbitration. That resulted in the 1897 Washington Treaty, which set up the international tribunal.

In 1899, the tribunal granted the entire mouth of the Orinoco River and land on either side to Venezuela, and gave the land to the east, extending to the Essequibo River, to the United Kingdom. That land, known as the Essequibo Region, became part of then-British Guyana.

A U.K.-Venezuelan commission made an official boundary map at the start of the 20th century. The border region, comprising about two-fifths of present-day Guyana, is rich in diamonds, gold and timber, but Venezuela’s efforts to reclaim it also reflect national pride.

ExxonMobil’s discovery of huge offshore oil fields there since 2015 has added to Guyana’s hopes of shedding its impoverished status.

The Caribbean Community, or CARICOM, an initially English-speaking organization of 15 nations and territories, has sided with Guyana, its host nation, in the dispute. It said the 1899 decision “definitely settled the boundary.”

“CARICOM’s formal position has to be a commitment to the territorial integrity of Guyana,” Freundel Stuart, a former prime minister of Barbados, another ex-British colony, said in a statement in 2015, when he chaired the organization.

ICJ justices concluded The Hague, Netherlands-based court “has jurisdiction to entertain Guyana’s claims concerning the validity of the 1899 award about the frontier between British Guyana and Venezuela, and the related question of the definitive settlement of the land boundary dispute between the territories of the parties.”

They said they would now move on to judge the merits of the case.

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