Top UN Court Agrees to Hear Guyana-Venezuela Border Fight

The Peace Palace, which houses the International Court of Justice, is seen in The Hague, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — The United Nations’ high court held Friday it has jurisdiction to hear a South American border dispute dating back to the 1800s. 

The International Court of Justice found it has the authority to rule in the matter between Venezuela and Guyana. The two have been fighting over the disputed Guayana Esequiba territory since 1814. The case at hand involves an 1899 tribunal decision awarding the land to what was then known as British Guiana. 

The ruling is a win for Guyana, which argued this past summer in The Hague-based court’s first virtual hearing that the ICJ judges should decide the case.

“The court concludes that it has jurisdiction to entertain Guyana’s claims concerning the validity of the 1899 award … and the related question of the definitive settlement of the land boundary dispute,” Presiding Judge Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf said Friday, reading the decision aloud before a mostly empty courtroom.

Venezuela has declined to participate in the proceedings on the basis that it doesn’t recognize the jurisdiction of the court, though it did submit more than 200 pages of written evidence in its own defense.

“It’s valuable for the court to know the views of both parties,” Yusuf said. 

Guayana Esequiba, a 61,600 square mile gold and oil-rich region situated on the western border of Guyana and the eastern border of Venezuela, has been a point of controversy since both countries were European colonies. 

Venezuela claimed the 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 to not 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, which in 1899 awarded it to the British. Venezuela claimed there was collusion among the tribunal judges and refused to accept the result.

“More than 120 years have passed since international law spoke,” Guyanese politician Sir Shridath Ramphal told the 15-judge panel in June. He noted that the tribunal reached its decision exactly 29 years before he was born. 

After decades of disagreement, including a 1958 planned invasion by Venezuela, British Guiana, the United Kingdom and Venezuela negotiated “an agreement to reach an agreement” in 1966, giving the parties four years to find a resolution. A few months later, Guyana declared its independence from the United Kingdom. 

The ICJ found, however, that it only has jurisdiction to rule on the 1899 treaty. Disputes that arose after the 1966 agreement, known as the Geneva Agreement, could not be resolved by the court, the judges concluded. 

“The Court notes that the scope of the dispute that the parties agreed to settle through…the Geneva Agreement is circumscribed by Article I thereof, which refers to ‘the controversy . . . which has arisen as the result of the Venezuelan contention that the arbitral award of 1899 . . . is null and void,’” the ruling states. “The use of the present perfect tense in Article I indicates that the parties understood the controversy to mean the dispute which had crystallized between them at the time of the conclusion of the Geneva Agreement.”

It continued, “The Court’s jurisdiction is therefore limited…to the claims of either party that existed on the date the Geneva Agreement was signed.”

In 2013, oil was discovered in the area, setting off another round of confrontations between the countries. A U.S.-chartered oil ship was seized by Venezuela that year. Caracas claimed the ship was in its territorial waters, while Guyana, which had given the ship an exploration license, claimed the territory as its own. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres referred the matter to the ICJ in 2018 for resolution after mediation had failed.

If Venezuela prevails, more than 40% of Guyanese territory would be taken away. The court is expected to hold hearings on the merits of the case next year. 

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