- BBC News World
Before withdrawing from Central America, Britain left a centuries-old border dispute unresolved.
Decades later, it continues to confront Belize and Guatemala.
The case has even reached the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, where both nations have presented their versions of a border claim of more than 160 years.
Since the 19th century, the two countries have been in an intense dispute over almost 12,000 square kilometers of territory, including islands and islets, and also maritime areas that Guatemala claims and Belize considers to belong to it.
After presenting its response to Guatemala’s claim in The Hague in early June, Belize assured that it is a matter of territorial integrity and that it will do everything possible to preserve its sovereignty over what it considers national territory.
“Belizens can rest assured that a clear and forceful argument has been presented in favor of our territorial sovereignty, as well as over maritime areas, as determined by international law,” Prime Minister John Briceño said in an institutional statement.
Both countries decided to take the case to the ICJ after two separate referendums: the first took place in 2018 in Guatemala and was followed a year later by Belize.
At the end of 2020, the Guatemalan government presented the text of its lawsuit before the Court, which consisted of eight volumes and a total of 4,813 pages.
According to the schedule announced by the Court, the presentation of documents made by Belize last month should be followed by Guatemala’s counterarguments in December 2022.
Then, Belize will have until June 2023 to present its last argument, after which the ICJ will set a date for oral hearings.
The size of the disputed area is such that it is almost half of the territory currently occupied by Belize.
Being in litigation, a large part of the area is not properly marked or guarded, which is why it is also one of the most insecure border areas in Central America, permeated by drug trafficking, species trafficking and contraband.
But what is the origin of the dispute between these two countries and why the UK is singled out to be behind the problem?
The origins of the dispute
In the text of its lawsuit in 2018, Guatemala indicated that it claimed “all the rights inherited from Spain” at the time of its independence, in 1821.
The basis of the conflict actually goes back a little further, to 1783, when the Spanish crowns allowed the English to cut down trees in the northern part of the territory now occupied by Belize.
What is now Central America was part of the viceroyalty of New Spain, a territorial entity that was part of the Spanish empire.
However, the disputes between Spain and England led to numerous clashes in those years on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the Caribbean, English pirates attacked Spanish ships and took refuge on the coast of what is now Belize.
As a pact to avoid the siege, first in 1783 and then in 1786, Spain gave the British crown two concessions to extract precious woods in that territory.
But while Spain was busy fighting the war for independence in Central America, the British settlement it was spreading.
And by 1821, when the region ceased to belong to Spain, the British colony already occupied the territory of what is now Belize.
Tens of thousands of Englishmen, merchants, slavers, sailors and seekers of fortune and adventure had already arrived in the territory.
They called it “British Honduras.”
Those were turbulent years and, after coming out of the war with Spain, Guatemala faced another territorial dispute with Mexicowhich intended to keep the region in which Petén is located.
This led the Guatemalan government to put aside the stealthy British expansion in the east to focus on conserving the territory that the neighbor to the north wanted to take from it.
But once the conflict with Mexico began to subside, Guatemala turned its focus to the area occupied by the English crown.
By 1850, the British signed the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty with the United States, in which both nations agreed not to occupy, colonize or fortify any Central American territory.
However, in its agreement with the US, Great Britain claimed that the territory of Belize had been granted in usufruct by Spain.
And although Washington did not then recognize British rights to those territories, the status of the colony was maintained.
It was then that what the press of the time called the English “betrayal” began: a series of pacts and promises that Great Britain signed, but never fulfilled.
In 1859 and after numerous protests and diplomatic moves, Guatemala and Great Britain signed the Aycinena-Wyke treaty in which Guatemala agreed to cede a certain part of the territory occupied by the British.
However, this should have in exchange for compensation: the construction of a highway from the capital of Guatemala to the Caribbean Sea, which should be paid for by the British.
England, however, did not keep its promise and never built the route.
This caused unrest in Guatemala and the authorities called for new rounds of talks with the British.
That’s when at a convention in 1863 Britain, then one of the world’s leading powers, agreed to pay £50,000, the amount they estimated the road would cost in the 1859 agreement.
However, they again failed to agree and not an english penny was paid to the coffers of Guatemala.
the new century
The discussion became an explicit issue of conflict throughout the 20th century and even reached the then League of Nations (predecessor of the UN).
In the 1930s, Guatemala proposed a new solution to the dispute: it made a series of proposals that ranged from the return of the territory ceded by the Spanish crown plus the payment of 400,000 pounds sterling, or that amount and a strip of territory that guarantee an outlet to the sea for the Petén region.
The United Kingdom did not accept any and continued to delay any discussion on the matter for years.
It was then that in 1946, the Guatemalan Congress, during the first government of Juan Jose Arevalo Bermejo unilaterally considered null and void, the 1859 pact, given that the United Kingdom “had betrayed its word and not complied with what was stipulated therein”.
Both countries decided to take the matter to the recently created ICJ, but things got complicated when they could not agree on the terms and certain legal procedures.
The process finally stalled when Belize achieved independence from the United Kingdom in 1981, which was not recognized by Guatemala until a decade later.
the new discussion
In successive constitutions, Guatemala reaffirmed throughout the 20th century that it declared “Belize part of its territory” and that it considered “of national interest the efforts aimed at achieving its effective reincorporation into the Republic.”
For this reason, the recognition of the independence of the new nation also became a headache: the United Kingdom withdrew and left unresolved a problem that had begun a century earlier.
The delicate situation led the Guatemalan authorities not to recognize their neighbor: they finally did so in 1991 when the then president Jorge Serrano recognized the right of Belize to self-determination and sovereignty, and that of Belizeans to choose their government.
However, it did not recognize the territory where the country is based.
Belize, in exchange, accepted that its neighbor claimed rights over its territory and agreed to continue negotiations and consultations to bring the case before the ICJ.
United Kingdom, which had maintained a deterrent force, the British Forces Belize or “BritForBel“To protect the territory from a potential invasion from Guatemala, he kept his troops there for a few more years.
In 1994, the British Forces from Belize finally withdrew, but the Central American country is still used by the British as a training center for jungle warfare.
Now you can receive notifications from BBC World. Download the new version of our app and activate it so you don’t miss out on our best content.