Belize and Guatemala: Territorial Dispute Rages On

By Illingworth, Erica | Washington Report on the Hemisphere, February 13, 2015 | Go to article overview

Belize and Guatemala: Territorial Dispute Rages On


Illingworth, Erica, Washington Report on the Hemisphere


This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Erica Illingworth

Stemming from colonial legacies, the longstanding territorial dispute between Belize and Guatemala has yet to be resolved. The territory in question consists of 12,272 square kilometers south of the Río Sibún in Belize. Guatemala has repeatedly claimed this land, basing their claims on an old agreement reached during the days of imperialism. Though these days are over, and most Latin American countries have gained independence and established borders, Belize and Guatemala are still at each other's throats, fighting for a land that each claims as its own. Nearly 200 years old, this dispute raises doubts that the fighting will ever subside, and as Belize and Guatemala have been unable to solve the conflict on their own, international institutions have stepped in. If this dispute is resolved, it will show that contrary to popular belief, international institutions are in fact capable of establishing cooperation and peace. However, the ongoing dispute demonstrates that international institutions' power ends where state sovereignty begins.

A Brief History: The Birth of a Conflict

In the 19th century, Belize and Guatemala were colonies of the British and Spanish empires, respectively. Spain possessed colonies that dominated Central America. The territory that comprised Guatemala belonged to the Spanish, and British inroads in Central America soon formed a small colonial territory that it seized and adopted as its own. This colony, which originally belonged to Spain, became British Honduras, now Belize.

Throughout the 19th century, the conflict over the land continued incessantly. However, the dispute officially began with a treaty of frontiers between Britain and Guatemala, signed on April 30, 1859. In the treaty, Article 7 delineates the beginning of the controversy. This important article concerns the construction of a road from the Atlantic Coast to Guatemala City. The road was never completed, and what followed was a long diplomatic dispute regarding the meaning of the article. Guatemala interpreted the treaty as a cession of territory to Britain, meaning that the land was available for Guatemala to take. This fiasco marks the beginning of the very long bitter dispute between Guatemala and Great Britain; when Belize gained sovereignty from the British Empire, it adopted the issue and continued in the territorial dispute.

In 1862, Belize was formally incorporated into the British Empire, and named British Honduras. Guatemala received its independence on September 15, 1821, and formed a government. However, Belize was not so quick in gaining its independence, remaining under British rule until 1981.

In 1981, Belize negotiated with the British for its independence, despite firm Guatemalan opposition. Guatemala complicated these negotiations, firmly insisting on its ownership of the disputed land. Despite the inability of Belize and Guatemala to resolve the border disagreement, the British continued to establish an independent and a sovereign Belize. On September 21, 1981, Belize became an independent state, retaining all its territory and enjoying full autonomy. However, Britain did not leave Belize alone to fight foreseeable border wars with Guatemala; it stationed troops in the region to defend Belize against any possible attack.

In 1991, Belize joined the Organization of American States (OAS), and established diplomatic relations with Guatemala. This significantly improved the relationship, causing the U.K. to withdraw its troops. Believing that tensions between Guatemala and Belize had subsided in January 1994, the British transferred security responsibilities to the Belizean Defense Force. This provided more sovereignty to Belize, although it continued to rely heavily on the support of multilateral organizations, such as the OAS, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), and the Commonwealth. Shortly thereafter, Guatemala renounced its previous agreement and formally reaffirmed its claim to territory in Belize. …

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