Guatemala to vote on path to settle Belize border dispute

Guatemala City (AFP) –


A long-running border dispute between Guatemala and Belize reaches a decision point on Sunday when Guatemalans vote on whether to send the matter to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for a ruling.

The referendum will ask the country's 7.5 million electors whether The Hague-based ICJ should determine the final boundaries of the countries, which have been in contention for more than two centuries.

It asks electors to respond "yes" or "no" 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 referendum was meant to have happened earlier.

It was delayed when then-president Otto Perez was forced to resign in 2015 because of a corruption scandal, before an election put current President Jimmy Morales in power.

Belize, too, is to hold a plebiscite on the issue. No date has yet been set, although officials say one could take place next year.

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Both countries agreed to the ICJ route in a 2008 accord, pending voter approval through the referendums.

The path to The Hague is meant to resolve border tensions that have surged and ebbed over the years.

Most recently, in 2016, the dispute nearly turned ugly when Guatemala mobilized thousands of soldiers in the border zone in response to the shooting death of a Guatemalan boy.

A Belize border patrol said it came under fire and acted in self-defense but an investigation by the Organization of American States later found Belize not responsible for the teenager's death.

Guatemala has made claims over more than half of Belize's territory, dating back 150 years to when its English-speaking neighbor was a British colony known as British Honduras.

Despite the tensions between the countries' governments and armed forces, Guatemalan voters appear largely unconcerned about the border issue and the steps to resolve it.

The head of Guatemala's Supreme Electoral Tribunal, Maria Eugenia Mijangos, told reporters that voter apathy was the biggest risk.

Previous referendums on other issues have seen turnout below 18 percent.

Although there has been no reliable survey on the border question, some analysts believe turnout could be as low as 10 percent.

Morales has launched a campaign to try to get people to polling stations, but his rapidly declining popularity has failed to stir the electorate.

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.