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Saturday, December 9, 2023
Courthouse News Service
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Guyana asks UN’s top court to block Venezuelan border referendum

The fight over a 61,000-square-mile, gold- and oil-rich border region is the longest-running dispute in international law.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — Lawyers for Guyana told the United Nations’ highest court on Tuesday that the South American country faces an existential threat if a scheduled referendum in neighboring Venezuela over their long-contested border is allowed to proceed.

Caracas, which does not recognize the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice in the dispute, is set to hold a referendum on Dec. 3, asking its citizens if the country should ignore the ongoing proceedings. 

The pair have been fighting over a 61,000-square-mile, gold- and oil-rich border region roughly the size of Florida since 1899, when both countries were European colonies.

The national referendum “is designed to obtain an overwhelming popular mandate for the government to reject the jurisdiction of the court, to preempt the future judgment of the court, and in so doing undermine the authority and effectiveness of the principal judicial organ of the United Nations,” senior Guyanese diplomat Carl Greenidge told judges in his opening statement. 

Guyana is asking the Hague-based court to issue provisional measures, essentially an injunction, ordering Venezuela to halt the referendum in its current form. 

After an attempt at mediation by the U.N. failed in 2018, Guyana’s government in Georgetown filed a complaint with the court. The same year, Venezuela seized a ship exploring for oil in coastal waters claimed by both countries, escalating tensions between the two. 

The court ruled in 2020 that it had jurisdiction to hear the case. Venezuela refused to participate in the hearings over jurisdiction — the first proceedings the court ever held virtually — claiming it doesn’t recognize the authority of the court. 

In June 2022, before the Court of Justice could move on to the merits phase, Venezuela raised preliminary objections over admissibility, in a move that Guyana called a stalling tactic. Judges dismissed Caracas’ claims earlier this year

Last month, the government of Nicolás Maduro announced it would hold a referendum on the dispute. Guyana argues the questions are intentionally provocative and illegally undermine the jurisdiction of the court. It is an attempt by Maduro to “obtain a popular mandate to carry out actions it has already decided to take,” lawyer Paul Reichler told the 13 sitting judges. 

The text of the five-question referendum includes calling the legal proceedings “fraudulently interposed” and refers to the region as “our Guayana Esequiba,” as Venezuela calls the area. 

Following the hearing, the vice president of Venezuela, Delcy Rodriguez, said the referendum would move ahead as planned. “Every Venezuelan is going to vote because it is an essential issue,” she told reporters. 

The border dispute first landed before a tribunal more than 120 years ago. Venezuela claimed the contested territory in 1811 when it declared independence from Spain. Three years later, the United Kingdom claimed the region as part of its newly acquired colony, Guyana, which it received from the Dutch as part of the 1814 Anglo-Dutch Treaty. 

As a compromise, both countries originally agreed not to colonize the region — until gold was discovered in 1876, reigniting the dispute. Great Britain and Venezuela finally agreed to take the conflict to a tribunal. The 1899 Paris Arbitration Award gave the region to the U.K., part of a territory then called British Guiana. Venezuela claimed there was collusion among the tribunal judges and refused to accept the result.

In 1962, Caracas complained to the U.N. about the dispute. After three years of discussions, Venezuela, the U.K. and British Guiana negotiated “an agreement to reach an agreement” in 1966, known as the Geneva Agreement. That deal gave the countries another four years to find a resolution. However, a few months later, Guyana declared its independence from the U.K. and the countries have since failed to find any solution. 

Hearings will continue on Wednesday with arguments from Venezuela. 

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