Belize sets date for vote on Guatemala border dispute

The border between Guatemala and Belize has been a major point of contention. (AFP pic)

GUATEMALA CITY: Belize has set a date in April next year for a referendum on whether to send a long-running border dispute with neighbouring Guatemala to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Organisation of the vote on April 10, 2019, announced by Belize’s foreign ministry in a statement late Monday, follows a similar referendum held in Guatemala on April 15.

An overwhelming 96% of ballots in Guatemala favored The Hague-based ICJ taking up the matter, although a mere 26% of voters turned out for the referendum. The border disagreement between the two countries has roots going back two centuries, to when the UK ruled over Belize, which was then called British Honduras.

Belize became independent in 1981, but Guatemala refused to recognise it as a new country for a decade. Even after acknowledging Belize as a neighbour, Guatemala continued to make claims over more than half of Belize’s territory, as well as many islands.

Tensions have surged from time to time along the land border, which runs through remote, densely-forested territory.

Two years ago, Guatemala mobilised 3,000 troops after an incident in which a Guatemalan teenager was fatally shot along the border area. An investigation by the Organisation of American States later found a Belize border patrol who had come under fire at the time was not responsible for the boy’s death.

The two nations agreed in 2008 to send the dispute to the ICJ if voters in both countries approved.

Guatemala’s president Jimmy Morales hailed Belize’s decision to move ahead with its referendum.

“Together we can find a peaceful solution to the territorial, island, and maritime dispute,” he said.