Belize - Foreign Relations
Belize's principal external concern has been the dispute involving the Guatemalan claim to Belizean territory. This dispute originated in Imperial Spain's claim to all "New World" territories west of the line established in the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. Nineteenth-century efforts to resolve the problems led to later differences over interpretation and implementation of an 1859 treaty intended to establish the boundaries between Guatemala and Belize, then named British Honduras. Guatemala contends that the 1859 treaty is void because the British failed to comply with all its economic assistance clauses. Neither Spain nor Guatemala ever exercised effective sovereignty over the area.
A longstanding territorial dispute with Guatemala continues, although cooperation between the two countries has increased in recent years across a wide spectrum of common interests, including trade and environment. Seeing itself as a bridge, Belize is actively involved with the Caribbean nations of CARICOM, works with its Central American neighbors as a member of SICA (Central American Integration System), and participates in the Organization of American States.
Negotiations have been underway for many years, including one period in the 1960s in which the U.S. Government sought unsuccessfully to mediate. A 1981 trilateral (Belize, Guatemala, and the United Kingdom) "Heads of Agreement" was not implemented due to continued contentions. Belize became independent on September 21, 1981, with the territorial dispute unresolved. Significant negotiations between Belize and Guatemala, with the United Kingdom as an observer, resumed in 1988. Guatemala recognized Belize's independence in 1991, and diplomatic relations were established.
Eventually, on November 8, 2000, the two parties agreed to respect an "adjacency zone" extending one kilometer east and west from the border. Around this time, the Government of Guatemala insisted that the territorial claim was a legal one and that the only possibility for a resolution was to submit the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). However, the Government of Belize felt that taking the case to the ICJ or to arbitration represented an unnecessary expenditure of time and money. So the Belizean Government proposed an alternate process, one under the auspices of the Organization of American States (OAS).
Since then, despite efforts by the OAS to jumpstart the process, movement has been limited to confidence-building measures between the parties. In November 2007, the Secretary General of the OAS recommended that the dispute be referred to the ICJ. Currently Belize and Guatemala are preparing for a referendum, to be held simultaneously in both countries, on whether this dispute would move forward to the ICJ.
Illegal logging and extraction of exotic hardwoods, illegal harvesting of xate palm leaves (a decorative plant used in flower arrangements), panning for gold, poaching of animals, and agriculture by Guatemalans on the Belize side of the adjacency line continued to increase throughout 2013 and continued into 2016. These illegal activities have led to confrontations between Guatemalan poachers and Belize law enforcement authorities on Belizean territory. Since 2012, the situation has resulted in five incidents of fatal shootings of illegal Guatemalan trespassers by Belizean authorities. Tensions escalated between both Governments in April 2016, when a 13 year old Guatemalan was killed during a Belizean patrol on the Belizean side of the adjacency zone.
While the Guatemalan Government accused Belizean security forces of continued excessive use of force, the Belizean Government claimed that the death was lamentable but its personnel acted in self-defense. During the first half of 2016, tensions also escalated along the Sarstoon River which forms the disputed southern border between the two countries. Guatemala has asserted rights over the Sarstoon, increased its naval presence in the area and has detained or questioned Belizean citizens wishing to navigate the river.
In order to strengthen its potential for economic and political development, Belize has sought to build closer ties with the Spanish-speaking countries of Central America to complement its historical ties to the English-speaking Caribbean states. In 2005 Belize joined other Central American countries participating in the Cooperating Nations Information Exchange System (CNIES), which assists in locating, identifying, tracking, and intercepting civil aircraft in Belize's airspace. Belize and other Central American countries signed the Conjunta Centroamerica-USA (CONCAUSA) agreement on regional sustainable development. Belize held the presidency of the Central American Integration System (SICA) for a 6-month period in 2010. Belize is a member of CARICOM, which was founded in 1973, and held the chairmanship of CARICOM for a 6-month period in 2008. Belize became an OAS member in 1990.
As a Commonwealth Realm, Belize shares the same language as the UK and its political institutions are rooted in UK practice. Legal, education and health systems are established along British lines and there is a similar tradition of non-governmental organisations and respect for human rights. Aid, commercial and defence relations with the UK are also strong. The UK supports Belize's pro-poor policies aimed at improving the quality of life for its people, and bringing about a sustainable environment. The UK continues to support Belize's sovereignty and territorial integrity and its efforts to find a peaceful resolution to its territorial dispute with Guatemala.
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