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HomeOpinionCommentaryVenezuela's dangerous referendum: Threatening peace and international law

Venezuela’s dangerous referendum: Threatening peace and international law

By Sir Ronald Sanders

For 60 years, from their entry into school, Venezuelans have been trained into believing that the Essequibo region of Guyana belongs to Venezuela. Consequently, regardless of the facts, this belief is ingrained in the Venezuelan psyche.

This is why, the only matter on which the contending political factions in Venezuela can agree is that Essequibo is Venezuelan.

It has long been a political tactic that, when there is domestic discord, a common enemy should be created, in an attempt to gain political support generally. Hence, the periodic but persistent proclamations from Venezuela, claiming Essequibo.

The latest attempt to validate the acquisition of the Essequibo region is evident in the questions posed to the Venezuelan electorate in a forthcoming referendum with a predetermined outcome.

The contrived referendum, prejudicially titled, “in defence of Guayana Esequiba”, will be held on December 3, 2023. Among its deliberately leading questions, designed to get a desired positive answer, is the following: “Do you agree with the creation of the Guayana Esequiba state and the development of an accelerated plan for the comprehensive care of the current and future population of that territory that includes, among others, the granting of citizenship and Venezuelan identity card in accordance with the Geneva Agreement and international law, consequently incorporating said state on the map of Venezuelan territory?”

Given that for over 60 years, successive governments of Venezuela have carried out a propaganda policy of brainwashing their people to adopt the claim that Essequibo belongs to Venezuela in defiance of an 1899 International Arbitral Award, the question is framed to secure the electorate’s support as validation of the annexation of Essequibo.

Significantly, the questions for the referendum ignore entirely that there is an existing arbitral award since 1899 that establishes the boundaries between Venezuela and Guyana. Similarly, the questions ignore the historical evidence that Venezuela proclaimed the arbitral award and ratified it in their congress.

The referendum also makes no mention of the fact that, since 2018, there is a case before the highest legal court in the world, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), to settle the validity of the 1899 award. The only reference to these proceedings is contained in question three of the referendum, which, prejudicially, poses the loaded question: “Do you agree with the historic position of Venezuela not to recognise the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice to resolve the controversy over the territory of Guayana Essequiba?”

The Venezuelan authorities neglect to advise their electorate of Articles 92 and 93 of the Charter of the United Nations. Article 92 states, “The International Court of Justice shall be the principal judicial organ of the United Nations” and Article 93 declares, “All Members of the United Nations are ipso facto parties to the Statute of the International Court of Justice.” Not to recognise the jurisdiction of the ICJ is tantamount to a repudiation of the UN Charter.

Moreover, the ICJ has already twice decided that it has jurisdiction to determine the validity of the 1899 award and the related land boundary between Venezuela and Guyana. The placing of the question in the referendum, in the manner in which it is framed, is a flagrant disregard for international law, the UN Charter and the ICJ.

It is clear that this contrived referendum is designed to lead the Venezuelan electorate into giving cover for the government decision to ignore the ICJ proceedings and, instead, to take unilateral action to “incorporate” Essequibo into “the territory of Venezuela.”

The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) rightly responded to this situation by noting that “two of the questions approved to be posed in the Referendum, if answered in the affirmative, would authorise the government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela to embark on the annexation of territory, which constitutes part of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana, and to create a state within Venezuela known as Guyana Essequibo.” Further, CARICOM reaffirmed that “international law strictly prohibits the government of one state from unilaterally seizing, annexing or incorporating the territory of another state. An affirmative vote as aforesaid opens the door to the possible violation of this fundamental tenet of international law.”

Against this background, it seems that the Venezuelan government is convinced that its chances of a favourable decision from the ICJ of its claims are very slim. Therefore, it is moving to annexation, a blatant violation of the Charters of the UN and the Organization of American States.

Venezuela has reached this point after many efforts to scuttle the ICJ process, by asserting that the controversy with Guyana could be settled by dialogue and negotiation between the two states. In making this assertion, Venezuela ignores the 50 years of joint commissions, direct negotiations, and UN good offices mediation which all failed. It also ignores that the present ICJ process, which flowed directly from the 1966 Geneva Agreement in which both Venezuela and Guyana agreed, under Article IV (1), that the UN Secretary-General shall make the decision concerning “one of the means of settlement provided in Article 33 of the Charter of the United Nations”. The Secretary-General decided on the ICJ.

And, Venezuela had every opportunity to participate actively in the proceedings even after it lost its legal arguments objecting to the Court’s jurisdiction. Therefore, Venezuela’s call for dialogue and negotiation is another gambit to avoid the judicial means of settlement.

International law and the ICJ process are the legitimate and peaceful pathways to a definitive settlement of the land boundary.

Any attempt to unilaterally incorporate Essequibo into Venezuela as is promoted by the planned referendum, or any subsequent military action in furtherance of such a contrived referendum, will rightly be met by international odium, condemnation and action.

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