By Sir Ronald Sanders
My less than 1,000 words commentary, on the case before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) between Guyana and Venezuela, provoked a response of 2,069 words from two academics of Universidad Central de Venezuela. The response merits reply if only because the authors, Kenneth Ramirez and Mirna Yonis, have attempted to masquerade their political position as an objective academic analysis.
In their lengthy response, the two authors devoted 688 words to the internal politics of Guyana and its general elections. This is a complete irrelevance to Venezuela’s claim to two-thirds of Guyana and to the question of whether the ICJ has jurisdiction to arbitrate the contention between the two countries. Their demeaning narrative of Guyana’s domestic politics highlights their intent to delegitimize the country.
Suffice to say that Guyana’s internal political discourse has been conducted within the framework of law. Further, it has been firmly established, by scholarship and demonstrated positions, that the political parties and the people of Guyana are united in their resistance to territorial claims by any group in Venezuela.
The bias of the authors was revealed in two further statements in their response.
The first was their assertion that Nicolas Maduro, the de facto Venezuela president has a “well earned, bad reputation”. This placed them in the camp of the opposition parties in Venezuela which have been even more strident than the Chavez/Maduro governments in aggressively laying claim to Guyanese territory.
The second was their pronouncement that there are a few Caribbean diplomats at the Organization of American States (OAS) that support Maduro “in the name of the principle of non-intervention”. They are right that non-intervention in the internal affairs of states is a settled principle in the OAS, reflected in its binding Charter; and in the United Nations, and that Caribbean diplomats uphold the rule of law.
The authors would evidently prefer Caribbean diplomats to discard principle and law in favour of the agenda of opposition forces in Venezuela. That will not happen; not because of any bias to one or other political group in Venezuela, but because Caribbean countries have consistently adumbrated the position that Venezuela’s internal political impasse must be settled by Venezuelans, and, further, that the rules and norms of international institutions should not be twisted to the advantage of one side or the other, nor for the benefit of any external interests.
As for the actual case before the ICJ, remarkably the authors boldly state that UN secretary-general, António Guterres, in referring the contention to the ICJ, “misunderstand and exceeded his authority” given under a 1966 agreement signed in Geneva by the parties. They impugn the integrity of the secretary-general and the considerable capacity of the UN legal machinery, suggesting that, despite every other determination made on international matters, this one is wrong simply because it does not accord with their preferences.
The UN Charter recognizes that “legal disputes should as a general rule be referred by the parties to the ICJ in accordance with the provisions of the Statute of the Court”. The Statute of the Court, which is an integral part of the UN Charter, clearly states that: “The jurisdiction of the Court comprises all cases which the parties refer to it and all matters specially provided for in the Charter of the United Nations or in treaties and conventions in force”.
The authors claim that, by going to the ICJ, Guyana broke the spirit of the 1966 agreement to negotiate bilaterally. But they conveniently ignore the reality that Venezuela verbalized negotiation while executing aggression. Numerous examples lay bare that story, among them: Venezuela’s invasion and occupation of Ankoko Island in 1996 and its illegal occupation ever since; president Raul Leoni in July 1968, claiming “sovereignty” over a twelve-mile strip of Guyana’s continental shelf; a decree by president Nicolás Maduro in May 2015, creating the “Atlantic coast of Venezuela” which included Guyana’s territorial waters in the Atlantic Ocean off the Essequibo region; and by other well-recorded acts of aggression.
As a basis for discarding international arbitration, the authors claim that “Venezuela has an inveterate doctrine of foreign policy that consists in not submit issues related with its territorial integrity to adjudicative methods that involve the settlement of these disputes by international tribunals”. In other words, unlike every other country in the world – large ones like the United States and small ones like the Marshall Islands – Venezuela prefers the use of its superior military and economic power to impose its will on a militarily weaker and, up until recently, a poor state. And to the authors, this big stick approach, away from the watchful eye of the world’s legal machinery, is perfectly right.
Staggeringly, these authors who claim academic credentials – and presumably, therefore, scholastic objectivity – state that the Arbitral Award of 1899, which settled the boundaries between Venezuela and Guyana, “was decided behind its (Venezuela’s) backs and enforced under the threat of coercion of the great powers”. It is little wonder that with professors such as these, Venezuelan students imbibe, as fact, the myth of a legitimate claim to two-thirds of Guyana.
Documentary evidence shows that the Arbitration Panel that produced the 1899 boundary settlement included the Chief Justice of the United States of America, Weston Fuller, who was nominated by no less a person than the president of Venezuela. Far from “behind Venezuela’s back”, the Venezuelan president was frontal in the composition of the Panel. Further, the arbitration gave to Venezuela “the mouth of the Orinoco and control of the Oronoco basin”.
So, delighted was the Venezuelan government with the award that the Venezuelan ambassador to London, Jose Andrade, the brother of president, Ignacio Andrade, declared: “Greatly indeed did justice shine through when in spite of all, in the determining of the frontier the exclusive dominion of the Orinoco was granted to us, which is the principal aim we set ourselves to obtain through arbitration”.
Successive Venezuelan governments jealously protected their acquisition of more territory and the new border until 1962, when political ambition resurrected an unsubstantiated claim, attributed to one of its long-dead lawyers from the 1899 arbitral process, that the US Chief Justice – Venezuela’s own appointed arbitrator – had been bribed. But, since the award gave Venezuela what it proclaimed was its desire, for what purpose was the US Chief Justice bribed?
If the authors are so certain of the rightness of the Venezuela contention, then there should be no fear of the ICJ – after all, as the saying goes, “truth will out”.