Mon | Dec 4, 2023

At UN top court, Guyana and Venezuela face off over border referendum

Published:Thursday | November 16, 2023 | 12:08 AM
View of the Peace Palace which houses World Court in The Hague, Netherlands, as seen on September 19, 2023.
View of the Peace Palace which houses World Court in The Hague, Netherlands, as seen on September 19, 2023.

Venezuela’s vice president on Wednesday vowed that her country will press ahead with a referendum on the future of a large tract of mineral-rich territory that it claims in a long-running dispute with neighbouring Guyana.

Vice President Delcy Rodríguez was speaking on the second day of hearings into a request by Guyana for the United Nations’ top court to order a halt to parts of a consultative referendum in December on the future of the Essequibo region, which makes up some two-thirds of Guyana.

“Venezuela reaffirms its categorical rejection of Guyana’s audacious action to interfere in its internal affairs. Nothing will prevent the referendum scheduled for December 3 from being held,” Rodríguez told judges at the International Court of Justice.

She added that her appearance at the court’s headquarters in the ornate Peace Palace in The Hague “in no way implies recognition of the jurisdiction of this honourable court over the territorial dispute concerning Guyana”.

On Tuesday, Guyana’s legal team called the consultative referendum an “existential threat” designed to pave the way for the annexation of the Essequibo by Venezuela.

The hearings are the latest development in a legal dispute between the South American neighbours that dates back to an arbitration award by an international tribunal in 1899 that drew the border between them.

Guyana launched a case at the world court in 2018 seeking to have UN judges uphold the 1899 ruling. Venezuela argues that a 1966 agreement to resolve the dispute effectively nullified the original arbitration decision.

Frictions between the countries have increased since 2015 as a result of oil exploration operations by Exxon Mobil and other companies in offshore areas intersecting the disputed territory.

The Venezuelan government maintains that Guyana does not have the right to grant concessions in maritime areas off the Essequibo.

“Guyana has put its institutions and its territory in the service of the major powers that have always aspired to destroy Venezuela in order to grab some of the largest world reserves of oil, gold and gas,” Rodríguez said.

The December 3 referendum was proposed by Venezuela’s National Assembly, approved by the National Electoral Council and cleared by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, all controlled by supporters of President Nicolás Maduro.

Maduro and his allies are encouraging voters to answer “yes” to all questions, one of which calls for the creation of a state in the territory and granting Venezuelan citizenship to current and future area residents.

At the end of Wednesday’s hearing, the court’s president, Joan E. Donoghue, said judges would deliver their decision on Guyana’s request “as soon as possible”.

“The collective decision called for here involves nothing less than the annexation of the territory in dispute in this case. This is a textbook example of annexation,” Paul Reichler, an American lawyer representing Guyana, argued on Tuesday.

Guyana’s application asks the court’s judges to make a series of urgent orders including calling for a halt to Venezuela’s planned referendum in its current form and to scrap three of the five planned questions.

“It is not an exaggeration to describe the current threat to Guyana as existential and the need for provisional measures as urgent,” the leader of Guyana’s team in court, Carl Greenidge, told judges.

The referendum “seeks to create a new Venezuelan state that purports to annex and incorporate into its own territory Guyana’s entire Essequibo region – more than two thirds of its national territory – and to grant Venezuelan citizenship to the population,” he added.

The referendum is scheduled to take place six weeks after Venezuela’s opposition held a presidential primary that exceeded participation expectations, including in areas long considered strongholds of the ruling party.

After years of fruitless mediation failed to resolve the dispute, Guyana went to the world court in 2018, asking judges to rule that the 1899 border decision is valid and binding.

The court has ruled the case is admissible and that it has jurisdiction. A decision, which would be final and legally binding, is likely years away, but a decision on the request discussed Tuesday will likely be issued within weeks.