Guatemala vs Belize: The Most Preposterous International Court Case of the Century

Ishaan Busireddy

Territorial disputes are everywhere in modern times. Every continent without exception (perhaps penguin disputes count too?) is marred by these terrible disagreements. Often more than not, these disputes, such as those between India, Pakistan, and China, evolve into armed conflict, claiming countless lives amidst endless wars. Sometimes, however, nations prefer a more diplomatic approach. For example, within the same general region as the prior example, India and Bangladesh diplomatically resolved their extensive border disputes in 2014 with the exchanging of exclaves and enclaves. Yet, mutually-beneficial solutions more frequently occur when the dispute itself is somewhat minor and not inflamed by violent nationalism.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Nevertheless, one dispute chose a third path. Built upon the ashes of the Mayans during the colonial era, the colonies of Guatemala and Belize were a hotspot for dispute. Both Spanish and British colonists vied for control over the region, a goal that the Spanish eventually accomplished. Under the Godolphin Treaty of 1670, Spain agreed to English control of all English-settled territories in the Western Hemisphere. However, which territories fell under this status was not defined, and Spain nevertheless assumed control of Belize and Guatemala. Eventually the 1763 Treaty of Paris relinquished British claims in exchange for economic rights in the area.

Yet, by the 1820s, Spain was rapidly losing dominion over Central America amidst the Napoleonic Occupation of Spain. Seizing the opportunity, the rebellious provinces of Central America formed an independent Federated Republic in 1821. Quite unceremoniously, however, the far larger colony of New Spain soon declared independence and, under its new name Mexico, absorbed Central America. Mexico and its new territories in Central America claimed inheritance of Spanish claims, which Britain did not recognize as, in their eyes, Mexico was simply an anti-European rebel state. Under such claims, Guatemala insisted that they either control all of Belize or split the territory along the Sibun River to respect Mexican claims. However, Britain forced Guatemala and Mexico to recognize British claims, and in turn the new “Crown Colony of British Honduras,” in 1859 and 1893 respectively. Even as late as 1931, Guatemala diplomatically reaffirmed its support of the border established by Britain.

So then, where did the dispute come from? Well, the situation all changed in 1940, when Guatemala claimed that its treaty with Britain was illegitimate as Britain failed to provide economic aid as per Clause VII of the Treaty and construct a road connecting Guatemala and Belize. The Guatemalan position was further signed into law with the 1945 Constitution, which declared British Honduras to be Guatemala’s 23rd department. Beginning in 1948, Guatemala has repeatedly threatened to invade Belize, prompting permanent British military presence. Successive right-wing and military governments have even used nationalistic sentiment regarding the dispute to distract Guatemalans from pressing domestic issues akin to, dare I say, the New Zealand Flag Referendum. Finally, Britain decided to possibly put an end to the issue by encouraging Belizean self-determination within international organizations. Thus, the legitimacy of Belize under British influence would be strengthened and the Guatemalan claims weakened. Against Guatemalan insistence for its claims, the UN, swayed by the British strategy, voted to “force” Britain to liberate Belize but to continue to defend it. Amidst the Falkland War in April 1982, it was feared that Guatemala would attempt to seize Belize while Britain was distracted, but these fears never manifested. After nine years of steady refusal, Guatemala finally agreed to acknowledge Belizean Independence in 1991 under British pressure. Between 1991 and 1999, an ever-desperate Guatemala reanalyzed its reasoning, and in 1999, presented the Prime Minister of Belize, Said Musa, renewed claims to the southern half of Belize based on Spanish and Federated Republican territorial claims to the area south of the Sibun River, approximately 53% of Belizean territory, drawing ire from Belizean citizens. After confrontations by various armed forces in the early 2000s, both sides agreed to resolve the dispute in the International Court of Justice on December 8th, 2008. In 2018, Guatemala held a national referendum to determine whether Guatemala should further pursue its claims in the ICJ. As 95.88% of the population affirmed that course of action, Guatemala pressured Belize to hold a similar referendum and proceed with the ICJ. After several delays, 55.4% of Belizean voters agreed to bring the case to the ICJ in 2019. In June later that year, the ICJ confirmed that it would resolve the dispute as both countries requested it take action. In 2020 and 2022 respectively, Guatemala and Belize submitted their evidence and preparation for the case, and it is expected that the ICJ will work to resolve the case in the coming months or years.

Without waiting, we can already speculate the result: Belize will win. It is quite obvious that the ICJ would never rule in favor of Guatemala. Doing so would create many more issues that it would solve, as it would solve, well, just one. Half of the Belizean population, along with possibly the capital of Belmopan, would be lost. This includes half of Belize’s income, armed forces, political institutions, employment opportunities, coastline, and of course, territory. The survival of the Belizean state in such a condition is quite doubtful, and the lack of employment among trained military personnel if Guatemala is unable to support the any Belizean forces they acquire could result in the growth of organized crime. In the case that an exodus of Belizeans to northern Belize occurs, both nations would suffer as Guatemala’s new territory would become barren and Belize overpopulated and poorer. On top of all of these effects, the ICJ would lose legitimacy as granting half of a country to another nation would be viewed as extreme and ridiculous, more so given that Guatemala provides inconsistent and flimsy evidence for its egregious claims. Hopefully, the ICJ lives up to its own name and upholds international justice by guaranteeing Belizean sovereignty and discouraging territorial disputes based on vile fabrications, a habit that the nascent power of China seems to have picked up. The ruling will thus have important geopolitical ramifications across the world, and it will be quite riveting to watch the most ridiculous international court case of the century as it unfolds.