THIS column has endeavoured over the years to keep before the public the importance of the Guyana -Venezuela controversy. Over the last year, the nation had been distracted by difficult political problems and the Guyana-Venezuela controversy and its long-term importance to the very survival of the country had been placed on the backburner in the consciousness of most Guyanese. The issue is coming up before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on June 30, when the court will determine whether it has the authority to hear Guyana’s filing which seeks to obtain from the court a final and binding judgment that the 1899 Arbitral Award which established the land boundaries between Guyana and Venezuela remains valid. The court has to take this first step before hearing the substantive filing, because Venezuela has taken the position that the court (ICJ) has no authority to adjudicate in this matter and has so far declared that it will not participate in the hearing.
Guyana’s legal team will be led by Sir Shridat Ramphal who would be supported by several international lawyers and Mr Carl Greenidge will represent the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Both government and opposition are united in defending Guyana’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and are standing together. For the information of younger citizens, we will reiterate a synopsis of the controversy:-
In the early decades of the 19th century when the Spanish colonies in America were rebelling against Spanish rule, the United States adumbrated its Munroe Doctrine whereby they pledged themselves to oppose the founding of any new European colonies on the American continent and the expansion of the already established ones. In the last quarter of the 19th century, Venezuela, encouraged by the Munroe Doctrine, claimed most of the colony of British Guiana and the United States supported Venezuela’s claim against Britain. Relations between these two English-speaking countries became so tense that there was even talk of war. Eventually, it was decided to refer the issue to international arbitration.
At the arbitration, Venezuela was represented by the United States and both sides were represented by the best lawyers of the time and the arbitrators were equally respected for their legal acumen and integrity.
The work of the arbitration was thorough. The archives of Spain, Holland and Britain were meticulously searched and the documentation recovered was voluminous. Britain’s claim was for the territory to the mouth of the Orinoco River and most of the present Venezuelan province of Guyana, while Venezuela claimed Essequibo and all of British Guiana except Berbice.
The arbitrators made their award in 1899. Britain lost territory to the mouth of the Orinoco River and its claims to parts of the present Venezuelan province, Guyana, while the Essequibo two-thirds of British Guiana was confirmed as belonging to Britain.
The Venezuelans were jubilant at the award and celebrated it as a victory, even commemorating it with the issuance of postage stamps. The land boundary of British Guiana was then demarcated by a joint team of Venezuelan and British surveyors and this boundary was recognised by Venezuela and internationally.
Then after 63 years, just as Britain was about to grant independence to Guyana, Venezuela rejected the Arbitral Award and claimed two-thirds of Guyana’s territory. Many suggestions have been put forward to explain Venezuela’s actions but whatever they might be, it is clear they did not wish Guyana to be granted independence and threatened not to recognise the independent state. Britain was determined to grant independence to Guyana and withdraw from the colony and came up with the idea of forming a Mixed Commission of Venezuela, Britain and Guyana to work for settlement of the controversy. Britain then granted independence to Guyana in 1966.
The Mixed Commission deliberated for four years (1966-1970) without result and for the next half-a-century, Guyana tried to bring closure to the issue. There was the 12-year moratorium(1970-1982); the seven-year Process of Consultation (1981-1990); then the 27-year Good Offices Process under the aegis of the Secretary-General of the United Nations (1990-2017).
If the Good Offices Process failed to bring about a solution to the controversy, then the secretary-general was charged with identifying any other methodology. The secretary-general ruled that it should be referred to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Guyana accepted the secretary-general’s ruling, but Venezuela claimed that the secretary-general had no authority to make such a ruling and that the ICJ could accordingly not hear the case. The ICJ invited Venezuela to prove its contention, giving it half-a-year to do so until November 2019. Venezuela, however, made no submission or appearance.
During this period of seeking a solution, that is from 1966, Venezuela took multiple bellicose and hostile actions against Guyana: there was continuous hostile activity and threats to attack Guyana with its very superior military and this included overflying Georgetown, sabre-rattling on the borders, and seizure and occupation of Ankoko island from Guyana (1966); attempting to dismember Guyana by instigating the Rupununi Rebellion (1969); the Leoni Decree when Venezuela attempted to seize Guyana’s territorial sea (1969); assault on an Eteringbang outpost (1970). They dissuaded investors from investing in Guyana by large advertisements in some of the main newspapers in the developed world, warning them how unsafe their investments would be. This economic hostility took a new turn when they tried to hamper Guyana’s oil and gas exploration by the seizure of seismic vessels Technics Perdana in early 2018 and Ranaform Thetys in December 2018.
The controversy should have come before the ICJ in March but owing to the constraints of COVID-19, it was postponed to 30th June when the proceedings would be employing ICT technology. Guyana’s filing, we reiterate, is to obtain from the court a final and binding judgement that the 1899 Arbitral Award which established the boundaries between Guyana and Venezuela remains valid.
Settlement of the controversy would be in both countries’ interest – it would remove an issue which has bedevilled Venezuelan internal politics for decades and allow Guyana and Venezuela to grow in cooperation and friendship to their mutual benefit.