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May 31, 2001

Chief negotiator says Belize’s case very strong

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While the last three decades have seen him smoothly make the transition from young rebel to elder statesman, the one constant in the life of Assad Shoman has been the persistence of the Guatemalan claim. As chief negotiator in the latest and most ambitious attempt at dialogue, the ambassador with ministerial rank has had to use all his intelligence, cunning and patience to try to pull off what many observers consider to be an impossible task. Having recently returned from presenting Belize’s case at the OAS in Washington, Shoman sat down for a conversation with News 5′s Stewart Krohn. The first question he addressed was that of why we are negotiating in the first place.

Assad Shoman, Chief Negotiator

“There’s always been an attitude for some Belizeans saying “why the hell should we have to talk to Guatemala. We have the land, they can’t take it away from us. There’s no point in talking.” Others know that there is a point, because you cannot live in a state of tension. You cannot live with a neighbour feeling aggrieved and aggressive towards you forever. You have to try and sit down and work this thing out. And so for the first time we were able to work out a system where we have a sort of independent body if you like, not only as a sort of referee in the ring between us, but also as what we call facilitators, to help us along. And that process, under the auspices of the Organisation of American States, and with the two facilitators, I think so far has served us well. It has reduced the tensions in the border. It has allowed us to come out with a map for example that was drawn by the people from the Pan American Institute of Geography and History, which shows the borderline of Belize. The whole of the border with Guatemala by an independent body, which was accepted by Guatemala and accepted by Belize, and this is the first time this has ever happened in the history of this whole dispute.”

Stewart Krohn

“In the most recent encounter in Washington, it’s generally agreed that the Belize delegation ran circles around the Guatemalans. Now that’s great from a Belize point of view, but it has also been speculated that the Guatemalans may have been sandbagging in their presentation to loll us into a false sense of security. What’s your take on this?”

Assad Shoman

“I think that the Guatemalans put forward the best case they have. You might say, and of course I am bias in the sense that I am fighting the side of Belize. But if you try to look impartially at the cases as legal cases, it’s very clear that their case is very weak and our case is extremely strong. The presentation was also very different. They had the Foreign Minister read from a text and it went on for about forty minutes, when he had two hours in order to present. And then he had Villagran Kramer say a few rambling words. Whereas we worked as a team. We had prepared virtually to the minute. It took two hours for us to present, which was what we were offered, and five of us in the team made different parts of the presentation. Our presentation I guess was a little more professional and more friendly to the facilitators. I think Gaviria, the Secretary General, was fascinated by the way we were actually presenting our case. But apart from the presentation, the substance of the case really does favour Belize.”

Stewart Krohn

“Are we toying with the idea now of perhaps agreeing to go to the International Court of Justice?”

Assad Shoman

“I wouldn’t say that we’re toying with the idea, I mean the fact is that we have a what we consider and what many highly respected international lawyers consider an invincible case. Just like in ordinary life, you don’t go to court just because you have a strong case. You try to solve your problems outside of court always. Court is always the last resort. And so we are in this process now, both of us said we’re in it in good faith, with a view to working out a solution, with the help of the facilitators and the OAS.”

Stewart Krohn

“Looking at the facilitators, isn’t it the case that both of these men work for the people that hired them, and in view of that, we really shouldn’t expect any surprises. What they’re going to say on July seventeenth or eighteenth, isn’t that already kind of mapped out in advance?”

Assad Shoman

“In a sense yes, because we won’t know for sure exactly what it is they’ll come up with. They might ask us for some broad parameters. We’ve already given the biggest parameter we have, which is no land cessation. But they could come up with other ideas that we’ve never heard of before. And there’s a third element here that we shouldn’t forget, which is the Secretary General of the OAS. The Secretary General has sat through all of the sessions, personally. He’s been there, he’s given a lot of time to this issue, shown a lot of concern and support for the process. And so there will come a time what they will consult with him, and he might come up with some other ideas, and he is not going to respond to either Guatemala or Belize. He is very independent in this process, so that element might help to move something forward as well.”

Stewart Krohn

“Ambassador, let me ask you a personal question. We’ve been seeing you negotiate in various processes over the years, from as far back as the early 70′s. We can recall pictures of you at the UN when you, a much younger man, had thick black hair and the vigour of real youth, like many of us did then. It’s thirty years later and you’re still involved in this process. Do you think that you’re going to see, in your lifetime, a solution to this problem?”

Assad Shoman

“Yes I will. I think on both sides, there is a sense of commitment I think to finding a solution. I think the fact that there is this process going on in Guatemala, democratisation process, which we hope will continue and mature. And that we have a new world as well, the whole process of globalisation in a sense makes frontiers and makes borders less important than they were before from certain points of view. And therefore, the fact that Belize has now become a full member of the SICA, which is the Central American Integration Process, that Belize now has very direct access to the leaders…we’re all there together with all the other leaders of Central America. And for them, it seems strange that Guatemala should be continuing to have this position, when Belize is part of the family. So there are many things that work towards a hope that we can find a solution. As I said, we cannot be sure at all. We cannot have a kind of blind optimism that this will lead…and I certainly do not believe it will happen this year, or next year, but before I die, depends when I die.”

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Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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