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Top UN court rules it can hear Guyana-Venezuela border dispute

Guyana could lose more than 40% of its territory if Venezuela ultimately prevails in the case.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — The United Nations’ highest court on Thursday rejected an objection by Venezuela over admissibility and ruled proceedings in a more than century-old legal battle with Guyana can move forward. 

Caracas was unable to convince the International Court of Justice, also known as the World Court, that the participation of the United Kingdom - the former colonial ruler of what is now Guyana - was necessary to fairly decide the dispute over a 61,000-square-mile, gold- and oil-rich border region. 

Essequibo, 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. A tribunal ruled in 1899 that the region belonged to the United Kingdom, part of a territory then called British Guiana, a decision that Venezuela has been fighting against ever since. 

After three years of examination, Venezuela, the U.K. and British Guiana negotiated “an agreement to reach an agreement” in 1966, in what is known as the Geneva Agreement. It gave the countries another four years to find a resolution. A few months later, Guyana declared its independence from the U.K. and the countries failed to settle the dispute.  

The agreement “does not provide a role for the United Kingdom in choosing, or in participating in, the means of settlement of the dispute,” the International Court of Justice's president, Joan E. Donoghue, said in reading out the ruling in The Hague on Thursday.

Tensions escalated in 2018 when Venezuela seized a ship exploring for oil in coastal waters claimed by both countries. After mediation failed, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres referred the matter to the ICJ that same year.

Earlier this year, oil giant ExxonMobil announced it had found a huge reserve of oil off of the coast of Guyana, in waters that are in dispute.

The court ruled in 2020 that it had jurisdiction in 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 jurisdiction of the court. Before the court could move on to the merits phase, however, Venezuela raised preliminary objections over admissibility in June 2022, in a move that Guyana called a stalling tactic. 

Venezuela claimed the disputed territory in 1811 when it declared independence from Spain. Three years later, the U.K. 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, which in 1899 awarded it to the British. Venezuela claimed there was collusion among the tribunal judges and refused to accept the result.

Guyana stands to lose nearly half of its territory if Venezuela prevails.

The court will now move on to the merits phase and a final ruling will likely take years. 

Categories:Courts, Government, International

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