By SIR RONALD SANDERS
RECENT intimidatory and aggressive statements issued from Venezuela in the name of President Nicolas Maduro, the Government of Venezuela and the National Assembly concerning Guyana, have raised alarms in the regional, hemispheric and international community.
The Commonwealth, the Organization of American States, and CARICOM have objected to Venezuela’s behaviour toward Guyana, particularly as the Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro alleges, without any substantiation, that the Guyana Government is allowing the United States of America (US) to construct a military base on its territory “against Bolivar’s Venezuela”.
In a UN statement, the Guyana Government rejected Venezuela’s allegation, stating that “this all derives from Venezuela’s grotesque claim to two-thirds of Guyana”.
The background to these events is that in 1899, Venezuela agreed to an international arbitration that established the boundaries between Guyana and Venezuela as a ‘full, final, and perfect’ settlement. However, in 1962, just as Guyana was on the brink of gaining independence, Venezuela reversed its longstanding acceptance of the 1899 settlement. Without providing any evidence, the government claimed that the settlement was nothing more than a covert political agreement that infringed on its rights.
Based on this unfounded allegation, Venezuela has staked a claim to two-thirds of Guyana, specifically the Essequibo region. This claim, together with intermittent acts of belligerence by Venezuela, including its naval forces, have cast a shadow over Guyana’s economic development for all 57 years of its independence, deterring investors and causing instability in the country.
In February 1966, three months before Guyana’s independence from Britain, representatives from Venezuela, Britain, and Guyana convened in Geneva. There, they signed an agreement endorsed by the governments and parliaments of all three nations, aiming to resolve ‘the controversy’. This agreement outlined several steps towards resolution, including a provision for the UN Secretary-General to select a means of resolution as specified in Article 33 of the UN Charter. This process is articulated in Article IV of the 1966 Geneva Agreement which Venezuela fully endorsed.
Therefore, after the failure of initial resolution steps, UN Secretary-General António Guterres decided on 30 January 2018 that the International Court of Justice (ICJ) would be the avenue for resolution.
The path of peaceful resolution
Accordingly, in March 2018, Guyana applied to the ICJ for judicial adjudication.
In response, Venezuela refused to recognize the ICJ’s jurisdiction, abide by its decisions, or participate in its proceedings. This response was a direct infringement of Article 93 of the UN Charter, which clearly states: “All Members of the United Nations are ipso facto parties to the Statute of the International Court of Justice”.
However, the ICJ adjudged that it had jurisdiction to hear the case. Venezuela appeared twice before the Court to object. On both occasions, the Court rejected the Venezuelan objections. Therefore, the case has continued much to the disquiet of Venezuela which has clearly always been fearful of the Court’s decision.
The hostile path
In 2020, Guyana started producing and selling oil and gas offshore, boosting its economy. The IMF declared Guyana to be the fastest growing economy in the world with GDP growth of 62.3% in 2022 and 59% in the first half of 2023.
In the wake of these spectacular riches, an immediate response was sparked from the Venezuela government when, on 13 September 2023, the Guyana President, Irfaan Ali, updated the public on bids for 14 new offshore oil blocks, which had been opened for exploration and development. Ali said that immediate bids on 8 of them had been received from oil giants such as ExxonMobil, Hess Corporation, China National Offshore Oil Corporation and Total.
On 19 September 2023, the Venezuela government described the bidding process as “illegal” and issued a “warning” to all the participating companies that it would “apply all necessary measures to prevent the illegitimate exploitation of the natural resources that belong to our nation”.
This was followed by the unsubstantiated allegation on 23 September 2023 at the UN General Assembly that the US is seeking “to establish a military base in the contested territory, with the aim of creating a spearhead in its aggression against Venezuela and consolidating the plunder of our energy resources”.
Attempt to divide CARICOM
In an open message, posted on his X page, Maduro proposed that Guyana should abandon the process at the ICJ for “a meeting promoted by CARICOM to retake the Geneva Agreement of 1966”. It is a misleading proposition because it is clear, from even a cursory reading of the Geneva Agreement, that Guyana has followed its terms to the letter.
President Maduro had previously sought, unsuccessfully, to divert CARICOM from supporting the ICJ process. He has not succeeded in this further attempt. Although many CARICOM governments are friendly with the Maduro Government and have urged the US to drop sanctions against it, on 22 September 2023, CARICOM publicly supported Guyana’s sovereignty and right to develop its resources.
Promoting Nationalist Venezuela sentiment
On 21 September 2023, Venezuela’s National Assembly, decided to arouse nationalist sentiment at the urging of the government. It decided to hold a referendum on the claim to Essequibo “so that the people strengthen the defence” and “the inalienable rights of Venezuela”. It is a referendum hardly worth holding since, in furtherance of their unsubstantiated claim, for 61 years successive Venezuelan governments have indoctrinated their people from primary school in the belief that Essequibo belongs to Venezuela.
When the Venezuelan political parties met in Mexico in August 2021 in one of the failed attempts to find a way out of the many political, economic and humanitarian challenges that the country faces, the only thing on which they could agree was the claim for the Essequibo.
International Involvement and Response
In the wake of all this, the international community has made its position clear: it favours ICJ adjudication as the appropriate and peaceful means to settle the controversy, adhering to the Charter of the UN and international law.
This resolution path not only serves justice but also underpins the stability and development prospects of both Guyana and Venezuela, fostering an environment where mutual respect and cooperation can flourish.
(The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the Organization of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are entirely his own. Responses and previous commentaries: www.sirronaldsanders.com)