Legal opinion on Guatemala’s territorial claim to Belize

Legal opinion on Guatemala’s territorial claim to Belize

  • Legal opinion on Guatemala’s territorial claim to Belize

by Lauterpacht, E., Schwebel, S., Rosenne, S., & Vicuña, F. O.

Forward by Assad Shoman


The Guatemalan territorial claim to Belize has adversely affected the security and development of Belize for decades. A boundary treaty was concluded between Britain and Guatemala in 1859, and the diplomatic exchanges between the British and Guatemalan governments from 1860 to 1950 hardly impacted on the daily lives of the people in the British colony. But the pursuit by Guatemalan governments of the claim since then, when it became clear that the Belizean people wanted independence from Britain, has had serious consequences for the Belizean people. It has distorted their political development, delayed their independence, limited their development potential and often caused grave concerns for their security.


Beginning in 1962, Belizean political representatives joined British officials in talks with Guatemalan authorities, talks that often held out the promise of a just settlement of the dispute only to founder on sudden and inexplicable reversals of the Guatemalan position. In 1975, the Belize government decided to internationalise its quest for independence with security and territorial integrity, and in 1980 Belize received virtually unanimous support at the United Nations for early and secure independence with all its territory. Belize became independent in 1981 against opposition and threats from Guatemala that compelled Belize to request Britain to maintain troops in the country for its defence.


In 1991, Guatemala finally recognised Belize as an independent State, and in 1993 the claim was on the verge of a definitive solution, with Guatemala agreeing to accept Belize’s land borders as they had been defined in the 1859 Treaty, and Belize agreeing to give up some of its territorial sea rights in order to afford Guatemala an outlet to the high seas through its own territorial sea. But a constitutional crisis in Guatemala interrupted the process, and the following year the new Guatemalan government formally reinstated its claim, and later demanded that Belize cede to it more than half of its territory as the price for Guatemalan recognition of a truncated Belize.


Hopes that the new government installed in 2000 would negotiate a just settlement soon faded, as it began a policy of provoking military confrontations and encouraging peasant invasions. The new government insisted that the territorial dispute was eminently a legal one, and that the only possibility for a resolution was to submit the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) or arbitration.


The Belize government felt that this represented an unnecessary expense of time and money, and proposed a process under the auspices of the Organization of American States, with each country naming a Facilitator and both sides presenting their case to the Facilitators so that they could propose a just and durable solution. The process began in July 2000, and has been successful in implementing confidence-building measures along the border and in hearing the positions of both parties. The Facilitators are due to make their proposals by 15 December, 2001.


At the same time, however, conscious that if Guatemala remained intransigent the matter might indeed have to be submitted to the ICJ, the Belize government approached four eminent international lawyers and instructed them to write an Opinion that would, strictly on the basis of international law, consider whether Guatemala could validly question Belize’s sovereignty over the territory of Belize, or any part of it. They were not asked to prepare a brief for Belize’s prosecution of a case, but rather an impartial Opinion well founded on international law, which would give a clear and unbiased opinion of the true situation in strict accordance with the law.


The Belize government chose a high-powered multi-national team of highly respected and renowned international lawyers headed by Professor Sir Eli Lauterpacht Q.C., a British lawyer with impeccable credentials as an academic and great experience as a practitioner of international law. It includes Judge Stephen Schwebel, a citizen of the United States of America who until recently was a Judge and President of the ICJ; Professor Shabtai Rosenne, an Israeli citizen who is considered a world expert on the jurisdiction and jurisprudence of the ICJ; and the highly respected and experienced Latin American jurist, Professor Francisco Orrego Vicuna, a Chilean national. Together they have spent over a year in extensive research and consultation, and have now submitted their opinion.


I am pleased to present this Opinion to the international community and in particular to the people of Belize and Guatemala, both of who wish fervently to live in peace and harmony with each other and to cooperate for a sustainable and just development that will benefit the peoples on both sides of this hitherto troubled border. I am sure that the Opinion will be particularly useful in helping Belizeans to make up their minds, if they were ever asked whether the matter should be submitted to the ICJ for a final resolution.


On behalf of the Government of Belize, I extend warm congratulations to our advisers for an excellent study, and express the hope that the clarity and certitude of their Opinion will contribute to consigning to the past the divisions that have retarded the harmonious cooperative development of two sister peoples for too long.


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Lauterpacht, E., Schwebel, S., Rosenne, S., & Vicuña, F. O. (2001). Legal opinion on Guatemala’s territorial claim to Belize: Government of Belize. Retrieved from:

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