Caricom urges respect for international law

The Caribbean Community (Caricom) on Thursday reaffirmed the need for states to respect international law as Venezuela’s resuscitation of a more than century-old border dispute with Guyana appears set to explode into war.

“Caricom earnestly hopes that Venezuela is not raising the prospect of using force or military means to get its own way in this controversy over territory. After all, it has been the long-standing position of Latin American and Caribbean counties, including Venezuela, that our region must remain a zone of peace,” the regional grouping said in a statement responding to developments that have reignited passions in the dispute.

Caricom voiced its concerns hours after the Guyanese Government and Opposition issued a joint statement condemning what they described as Venezuela’s “flagrant violation of the rule of law” and agreed that “no effort should be spared to resist” Venezuela’s “persistent endeavours to undermine Guyana’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

In the statement, President Dr Mohamed Irfaan Ali and Opposition Leader Aubrey Norton said “the protection of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the State must be subserved by a vigorous and comprehensive public relations programme and a proactive and robust diplomatic effort aimed at blunting Venezuelan propaganda and misinformation as they relate to the territorial controversy generally, and the Geneva Agreement in particular”.

The Guyanese response came after news emerged that the Venezuelan Government has placed on a December 3 referendum two questions that, if answered in the affirmative, would authorise Venezuela to embark on the annexation of the potentially oil-rich Essequibo territory over which both countries have argued ownership since the late 1800s.

The long-standing border controversy resulted from Venezuela’s contention that the Arbitral Award of 1899 about the frontier between British Guiana and Venezuela is null and void. Within the framework of the 1966 Geneva Agreement between the two countries, the United Nations secretary general conducted Good Offices from 1990 to 2017 to find a solution to the controversy.

The approximately 160,000 square kilometres Essequibo region along the border of both countries is mostly impenetrable jungle. It constitutes more than two-thirds of Guyana’s total land mass.

In 2015 Venezuela reactivated its claim over the territory after after US oil giant ExxonMobil discovered crude oil deposits off the region’s coast.

The referendum has been described by critics as an attempt by the Venezuelan Government to measure its strength ahead of elections next year and to encourage the international courts to give it full rights over the disputed territory.

In April, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that it had jurisdiction over the issue brought before it to determine the validity of the 1899 Arbitral Award which Venezuela questions.

Guyana’s announcement last month of an oil tender triggered a protest by Venezuela, which argued that the offshore areas are subject to dispute and the companies awarded the fields will not have the rights to explore them.

Pointing to the questions on the December 3 referendum, Caricom reaffirmed that “international law strictly prohibits the government of one State from unilaterally seizing, annexing or incorporating the territory of another state. An affirmative vote as aforesaid opens the door to the possible violation of this fundamental tenet of international law”.

Caricom said it noted that the language of two questions approved to be posed in the referendum seeks an affirmation and implementation of Venezuela’s stance on the issue “by all means, according to/with the law”. That, the regional grouping posited, leaves it open to reasonable people to conclude that “by all means” includes means of force or war.

Caricom insisted that the referendum proposed by Venezuela has no validity, bearing, or standing in international law in relation to this controversy and is a purely domestic construct. However, “its summary effect is likely to undermine peace, tranquillity, security, and more”, in the region.

The 15-member-state grouping reiterated its support for the judicial process and expressed hope that Venezuela will engage fully in that process before the ICJ whose “final decision will ensure a resolution that is peaceful, equitable and in accordance with international law”.

Ali and Norton have argued that the questions violated the sanctity of treaties and are in blatant disregard of the principles of international law. They said that question three, in particular, speaks to the ‘historical position’ of Venezuela of not recognising the jurisdiction of the ICJ to resolve the territorial controversy’. Both men also pointed out that question five seeks the approval of the Venezuelan people for the creation of a new Venezuelan State consisting of Guyana’s Essequibo region, to include ‘the granting of citizenship and Venezuelan identity card in accordance with the Geneva Agreement and international law’.

“This is a deliberate misinterpretation of the Geneva Agreement and a clear violation of international law,” the Guyanese officials said.