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May 20, 2019

Maritime Areas Amendment Bill Receives Unanimous Yea Vote

Preparations for Belize to take its case before the International Court of Justice, in respect of the unfounded Guatemalan claim, continue to be made, following a historic referendum on May eighth.  Since the people of Belize overwhelmingly voted in favor of proceeding with the territorial dispute before the world court for resolution, government has been taking requisite steps before notifying the ICJ of its position.  Last week, we reported that two persons have been named as agents of government to oversee the matter going forward.  Those persons are ambassadors Assad Shoman and Alexis Rosado.  There are also two persons from the Opposition joining the bipartisan effort going forward.  They are Senator Eamon Courtenay and attorney Leslie Mendez.  The subsequent step in preparing for litigation was to amend the Maritime Areas Act.  This morning, in what has to be the shortest house meeting on record, the House of Representatives met in special session to table and pass a motion to amend the twenty-seven-year-old piece of law as it relates to Belize’s territorial waters under international law.  News Five’s Isani Cayetano has the following report.


Dean Barrow

Isani Cayetano

“Do we foresee any friction with Guatemala now that we’re reclaiming our full twelve miles of seas?”


Prime Minister Dean Barrow

“That’s a good question.  That’s a good question.  I think, again, that’s why the legal team wanted the amendment to the long title.  I thought it was already clear that all we were doing is saying that what had been passed in order to act as an aid to negotiations was now being, in fact, repealed and so that we would go back to the position under international law.”


Isani Cayetano, Reporting

…and that position under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, UNCLOS, as it is known otherwise, entitles Belize to twelve nautical miles of territorial waters.  In 1992, that distance was shortened via the passage of the Maritime Areas Act so as to allow Guatemala access to the high seas.  This was done under the leadership of Prime Minister George Price as a show of good faith during negotiations between Belize and Guatemala, in an effort to resolve the territorial dispute.  Twenty-seven years later, the legal clauses stating the conditions of the Maritime Areas Act are being undone in a historic show of bipartisanship.


Prime Minister Dean Barrow

“I rise to introduce a bill for an act to amend the Maritime Areas Act, Chapter 11 of the Substantive Laws of Belize, Revised Edition 2011, by repealing the provisions of it that had the declared purpose of providing a framework to seek a negotiated, definitive agreement on territorial differences with the Republic of Guatemala and leaving in force provisions of it that define the maritime areas of Belize on the basis of international law.”


The long title to which PM Barrow refers encompasses what was initially considered to be a clear definition of the maritime areas of Belize.  However, on the advice of government’s counsel, specific changes were made to the proposed amendment for further clarity.


Prime Minister Dean Barrow

“The change, to me, is a distinction without a difference but our team of international lawyers advised that in their view it would be best to do this for the sake of absolute clarity and to make sure that no one would think we are doing anything other than going back to the international law position and doing no more than taking out what had been put in the Maritime Areas Act for the expressed purpose of trying to aid the negotiation with Guatemala.”


On the other side of the floor, Opposition Leader John Briceño whose charge it was, having listened to the membership of the People’s United Party, to a lead a ‘no’ vote in the May eighth I.C.J. referendum has also embraced the spirit of bipartisanship in the interest of Belize.


John Briceño

John Briceño, Leader of the Opposition

“Point 4B of the People’s Declaration stated that the Maritime Areas Act be amended to claim for Belize the full extent of rights under international law.  We on this side believe that the proposed amendments before us today fulfills Point 4B of the People’s Declaration.  We are satisfied that these amendments are such that is in line with similar maritime legislation of other countries in our region, like Jamaica and St. Lucia.  Now Mr. Speaker, this is but one step in the process that will lead us to the I.C.J. and we start in this spirit of bipartisanship because we want the world to know that when it comes to our sovereignty and full territorial integrity we will not be divided and we will be one nation.”


With the Governor General’s assent, following a Special Sitting of the Senate to ratify the amended law, a formal notice will be sent to the International Court of Justice to commence the legal process, an expectedly lengthy undertaking.


Prime Minister Dean Barrow

“We can now send the notification, or as soon as the Governor General signs it into law, we can send the notification and we are off.  I want to repeat what I said, that already the legal team is looking at the preparation of the brief for the application of the Sarstoon Provisional Measures.  I would dearly hope that it wouldn’t become necessary but again, I wouldn’t hold my breath there either.  So we are proceeding on the basis that we will have to make the application and the lawyers are hard at work.  But in effect, once this is signed by the GG it means that we are off to the races.”


To my initial question, PM Barrow admits that while he does not have an answer, a great deal of what results from the repeal of the Maritime Areas Act will depend on the Guatemalans whose access to the high seas will now be limited.


Prime Minister Dean Barrow

“It’s a fair question and I can’t know the answer.  A lot will depend on the Guatemalans but from our point of view the intention is not to cause difficulties for the Guatemalans.  It is just to preserve our position so that when the judges give their decision there can be no prejudice in consequence of the fact that we had not, in fact, gone back and extended to the full extent allowable to us under international law.  So that’s the objective, it’s not to cause the Guatemalans any trouble.”


Reporting for News Five, I am Isani Cayetano.

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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