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The Dispute between Guyana and Venezuela over the Essequibo Region

Published on April 11, 2018        Author:  and
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Introduction

On 29 March 2018, Guyana filed an Application against Venezuela before the International Court of Justice (‘ICJ’) concerning the two States’ long-standing dispute over the Essequibo region. This Application was filed after the UN Secretary General decided on 30 January 2018 that the dispute between Guyana and Venezuela should be submitted to the Court. The Secretary General’s decision was welcomed in Guyana and received support from Caribbean countries. But it was received with some hostility in Venezuela. A decision by the ICJ could be the final act in a dispute which has, sometimes bitterly, divided the neighbouring countries for over a century. The dispute between the two States includes both procedural and substantive elements.

Procedurally, the parties disagree (and have disagreed for some time) as to whether the ICJ has jurisdiction to hear the dispute. As will be discussed below, the Secretary General’s role in the dispute is based on the provisions of the Geneva Agreement of 1966 between the UK (the colonial power in Guyana at that time) and Venezuela. Under this agreement, in the event that bilateral efforts to solve the dispute fail, the Secretary General is empowered to choose ‘…another of the means stipulated in Article 33 of the Charter of the United Nations…’. However, questions arise as to whether the Secretary General may submit the dispute to the ICJ in a manner which is binding on both parties. As for the substantive aspect of the dispute, the parties disagree as to the alleged nullity and invalidity of an arbitral award handed down in 1899 which found that the Essequibo region lies on British Guiana’s side of the border with Venezuela.

The resolution of the dispute is of significant economic interest to the parties, as the area is rich in natural resources: the world’s largest untouched oil reserves lay in the east of Venezuela, around the Orinoco river delta, close to the disputed border with Guyana. Natural resources are also present in the (as yet undelimited) coastal waters, and Guyana’s exploratory activities in the area have been protested by the Venezuelan government. In 2015, a Venezuelan Presidential Decree (1787, as amended by Decree 1859) laid claim to Atlantic waters off the Essequibo coast, and Venezuela’s navy has intervened in the disputed area on numerous occasions. The Decree met with protest from Guyana. As is common in these disputes, nationalist sentiment rides high as sovereignty over the area is seen as a matter of national honour and pride, and the rhetoric concerning the dispute has intensified on both sides. Venezuelan officials and civil society (see here and here) have decried the UNSG’s decision to submit the dispute to adjudication by the ICJ as a ‘hostile’ act against Venezuela. In Guyana, where Venezuela’s conduct is often perceived as a form of bullying by its more powerful neighbour, the Government is organising a public awareness campaign, including educating schoolchildren about the controversy. Read the rest of this entry…