With the vote of confidence given him by Prime Minister Dean Barrow on Friday, Minister of Foreign Affairs Wilfred Elrington could afford to boast just a bit as he gave PLUS News his first interview since returning from the United Nations General Assembly in New York City where he addressed the gathering of world leaders on September 30. His remarks at that meeting – where he detailed the constant incursions into Belizean territory by Guatemalan peasants and knocked his counterparts for waffling on the proposed referendum to settle the age-old territorial dispute at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) – provoked a strong reaction from Guatemala. On Saturday as he was leaving the National Party Council meeting we asked him about the Guatemalan reaction and he said that while his remarks were nothing new, the ferocious reaction by the Guatemalans was.
“I was a little surprised because what I said at United Nations, I had said at the OAS in the presence of the Guatemalan Foreign Minister, and that was certainly not their response. It wasn’t anything new that I was saying. I had already made that complain to the OAS on more than one occasion when the Guatemalans were present.
Reporter: “So, they made a formal complaint. Do you anticipate any backlash from what took place? I know the Prime Minister has already said, I got your back on this one!
Minister of Foreign Affairs: “There can’t be a backlash on it. It’s, we are notifying the world of what is happening. It’s absolutely important that we tell the world what is happening because in the event of emergency, we have to go to the world community to assist us; and if they don’t know what is happening, their response may well be very slow in coming or they may not be as stealth as it could be because we have good knowledge of what is transpiring”.
Sunday, October 6 was to have been the date for the simultaneous referenda in both territories. The Foreign Minister explains Guatemala’s reluctance to set a date for a new process and also, in light of recent events, whether a shift to a more aggressive tone is welcomed.
Hon. Wilfred Elrington “What I said was that the Guatemalans are requesting the matter to be adjourned without wanting to designate any new date. They are the ones who have been reluctant in arriving at a new date; we are prepared to go within the next Lent in 2014 if that would be more convenient to them, but they are not prepared to set a date”.
Reporter: “Finally, does this represent a shift in the approach to this issue by the Government of Belize?”
Minister of Foreign Affairs: “No. The Government of Belize is very firm in our position and we think that this should be resolved as quickly as possible, and we think to have it resolved is by going to the ICJ.
Reporter: “Are you being more aggressive in terms of presenting our case?
Minister of Foreign Affairs: “We have to be much more aggressive in terms of trying to make the Guatemalans to move it forward because it affects us every day. It’s not affecting them, but it’s only affecting us and we cannot just sit back and do nothing and just wait until they decide to do it. We have got to try to impel the process forward because it’s affecting us every single day”.
But this latest flare-up between the two neighboring countries is not impeding on efforts to resolve the territorial dispute. On Sunday, the highest electoral authorities of Belize and Guatemala met in San Ignacio, Belize under the auspices of the Organization of American States (OAS). The purpose of the gathering was to exchange information, experiences and best practices in electoral management; identify areas for inter-institutional collaboration; and further learn about the norms and processes in each country to conduct referendums. Ironically, Sunday, October 6th was the day scheduled for the simultaneous referenda that will determine if the dispute is to be submitted to the ICJ. That aside though, the meeting took place within the framework of the new confidence – building measures that both countries adopted last May with a view to improving the conditions necessary to establish a new date to hold the simultaneous referenda. At the meeting, Guatemala´s delegation was headed by the President of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, María Eugenia Villagrán de León, and Bernard Pitts, President of the Elections and Boundaries Commission, led the Belizean delegation. Also participating were the CEO of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belize, Ambassador Alexis Rosado and the Deputy Foreign Minister of Guatemala, Carlos Raúl Morales, among other officials from both countries. The assembly was chaired by the Representative of the Secretary General of the OAS for Belize- Guatemala Affairs, Ambassador Raul Lago, who was accompanied by the Chief of the OAS Peace Fund, Magdalena Talamas and the Director of the OAS Office in the Adjacency Zone, Sergio Benítez.