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Settling the Belizean-Guatemalan Territorial Dispute:

200 Years in the Making

by T. Alexander Martin  Spring 2019


            Belize and Guatemala have been embroiled in a 200-year-old territorial dispute rooted in their respective colonial pasts and the treaties that served to define their sovereign borders within the region. Over the course of the dispute, there have been many attempts at dispute settlement with varying levels of success.  The long-standing nature and political importance of the dispute have brought significant internal and external pressure to finally bring it to a resolution. Most recently, under the auspices of the Organization of American States, Belize and Guatemala have signed a Special Agreement to submit the dispute to the International Court of Justice, pending a referendum. This article will summarize the background and subject matter of the dispute as well as examine the appropriateness of the dispute settlement mechanisms employed in this case. In addition, it will also look at recent developments in the dispute in order to analyze the future prospects for potential resolution.

Background of the Dispute

            The background of the Belizean-Guatemalan territorial dispute traces its roots to the Spanish Empire’s claim on the New World Territories beginning with the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. This treaty divided sovereignty over the newly discovered territories exclusively between Spain and Portugal, including the area that would later become present-day Belize and Guatemala. However, this treaty was not recognized by England and most other European powers of the time. Without the recognition of either the British or Spanish governments, Scottish and English privateers-turned-loggers, called the Baymen, came to the region and took up permanent settlement.[1] Spanish forces from Mexico would attempt to expel the Baymen, but would ultimately lose in the Battle of St. George’s Caye.[2] The Baymen would eventually join the British Empire and continue to log in the region, even as the British government ceded sovereignty of the territory to Spain in the 1786 Convention of London. Spain, however, would never reassert effective control over the territory, and shortly after the decline of its empire, the independent republic of Guatemala would emerge in 1821. The Baymen settlement would also become a crown colony, in 1862, after being renamed British Honduras.

            Guatemala would continue to maintain sovereignty claims over the entirety of British Honduras as a successor state to Spain, based on the principle of uti possidetis.[3] However, in 1859, Guatemala and Great Britain signed the Treaty of Wyke-Aycinena (Treaty of 1859), in which Guatemala would agree to recognize British Honduras and its current borders in exchange for the construction of a road from Guatemala City to the Atlantic coast, as per Article 7 of the treaty. In addition, Guatemala and Britain would also sign the 1931 Exchange of Notes which reaffirmed provisions set forth in the Treaty of 1859, including the recognition of boundaries. The British government understood the Exchange of Notes and the Treaty of 1859 as formally establishing the boundaries of its colony. Guatemala, however, would later cite Britain’s failure to honor its obligation, under Article 7 of the Treaty of 1859, as the basis for its longest-standing territorial claim over British Honduras.[4]

            The dispute would be largely forgotten until the 1930s, when Guatemala renewed its territorial claims on British Honduras by asserting the Treaty of 1859 was null and void.[5] Guatemala went on to amend its constitution, in 1945, to assert that British Honduras was part of its territory.[6] This, in turn, began a series of bilateral negotiations between Britain and Guatemala that ultimately proved unfruitful. Despite the on-going dispute and strong opposition from Guatemala, Belize gained its independence from Britain, in 1981. Guatemala would eventually recognize Belize’s independence, in 1991, in order to establish diplomatic relations, but still maintained its claim to Belizean territory. However, Guatemala would significantly change its position, in 1999, to limit the territorial claim to lands between the Sibun and Sarstoon Rivers, as per a series of treaties made between Britain and Spain in the 18th century.


Subject Matter of the Dispute

            This dispute centers on Guatemala’s claim that the area currently administered by Belize is legally its sovereign territory, based on the title previously held by Spain. As a former colony of the Spanish Empire, Guatemala contends that it would inherit the sovereignty claims over the area formerly known as British Honduras, as per the doctrine of uti possidetis.[7] Guatemala’s initial claim relied heavily on the Treaty of 1859 and Britain’s non-compliance with Article 7. Guatemala’s interpretation of the treaty was that its cession of the territory to Britain was conditional on compliance with Article 7. Guatemala viewed the failure by the British to construct the road stipulated in the Article as a breach of the treaty, therefore rendering it null and void. Therefore, the entirety of the territory, known as British Honduras, should be reincorporated into Guatemala. [8] However, while Guatemala has never abandoned its claim on the territory, it is important to note that its position changed significantly, following Belize’s independence. Guatemala’s revised position in the dispute shifted focus from the Treaty of 1859 to a series of 18th-century Anglo-Spanish treaties, which dealt with Spanish sovereignty over territory within British Honduras, but limited Spanish jurisdiction to an area between the Hondo and Sibun Rivers. Consequently, Guatemala’s current claim is that the area referenced in those treaties, encompassing over 12,000 square kilometers of territory, currently administered by Belize, was illegally occupied by Britain and, therefore, actually the sovereign territory of Guatemala.[9]

            Although Britain is not a current party to the dispute, it maintained administrative control over Belize (as British Honduras) for over 120 years, and so, played a major role in the dispute leading up to Belizean independence. Accordingly, it would be prudent to examine its position within the dispute to effect a more complete understanding.  The British government refuted Guatemala’s territorial claim by asserting that Britain was given clear sovereignty over British Honduras, as per Article 1 of the Treaty of 1859. Furthermore, Britain alleged that failure to fulfill an obligation under Article 7 does not compromise the provisions set out in Article 1 or the rest of the Treaty. Britain also refuted Guatemala’s claim on the basis that it never enjoyed de facto or de jure sovereignty over the region, either as a Spanish colony or a sovereign State.[10]

            Belize’s position in this dispute in many ways mirrors that of Britain, in that Belizeans believe Guatemala should honor the current boundary as delineated by the Treaty of 1859. The Belizean government views Guatemala’s claim as legally untenable and further asserts that as a sovereign nation Belizeans have the right to self-determination and territorial integrity. Additionally, they have cited United Nations (U.N.( resolutions in 1975 and 1980, contending that the U.N. resolutions amount to widespread international support of those rights.[11]


Dispute Settlement Mechanisms

            The protracted nature of this dispute means that there have been many attempts made at dispute resolution. However, excluding the most recent developments, the mechanisms employed thus far have been limited to negotiation and mediation. At the beginning of the dispute, negotiations between Britain and Guatemala took place following Guatemala’s independence from Spain and its subsequent territorial claim to British Honduras. These initial negotiations proved fruitful, to the extent that it resulted in the Treaty of 1859, amounting to legal recognition of British Honduras and its borders. However, after the Treaty was signed by the two parties, disagreements broke out regarding the construction costs associated with the road allowing Guatemala access to the Atlantic coast, as stipulated in Article 7. As a result, construction never began and negotiations on this point ceased until Guatemala renewed its territorial claim in the 1930s. [12]

            After several decades of military posturing by both parties in the disputed border area, negotiations between Britain and Guatemala began again, in 1961. These negotiations would include Belizean officials from the newly elected People’s United Party, however no significant progress was made on settling the dispute. In fact, these negotiations would end in Guatemala breaking off diplomatic relations with Britain, forcing the United States to step in to mediate.[13] Both Guatemala and Britain agreed to accept the good offices of President Lyndon B. Johnson and allow the appointment of Bethiel Webster, an American lawyer, to recommend a settlement. However, while Webster’s draft proposal did allow for Belizean independence, it also stipulated terms that would give so much power to Guatemala so as to render it meaningless.[14] The proposal was met with unanimous opposition among political parties in British Honduras, in addition to renewed calls for independence. The proposal was ultimately rejected and a new round of negotiations began in 1969, but the negotiations were once again broken off, amid speculation of an imminent military invasion by Guatemala.  Another series of talks were initiated in 1973 and 1975, but which also yielded no results in terms of dispute settlement. The frustration from the failure of these negotiations and the delaying effect it was having on Belize's independence from Britain, led Belize to seek support in the United Nations. After the passage of a U.N. General Assembly resolution in 1980, Belize gained international support for its independence. However, before it would be awarded that independence the following year, Belize made a last attempt to negotiate a settlement, resulting in the Heads of Agreement. Although the parties initiated it, the Agreement was met with strong opposition and violent protests in Belize. Likewise, in Guatemala, hardline political parties labeled the Agreement as a sellout and the Guatemalan government eventually refused to ratify it.[15]

            The dispute would continue on, after Belize gained its independence in 1981, amid several more rounds of unsuccessful negotiations. Tensions between the two countries would continue to flare, ultimately resulting in an incident in 2000 where a Belizean patrol shot and killed a Guatemalan national along the disputed border area.[16] This incident would lead to an agreement by Belize and Guatemala to enter into talks under the auspices of the Organization of American States (OAS). In 2005, these OAS mediated talks would result in the signing of the “Agreement on Confidence Building Measures” by Belize, Guatemala and the Secretary-General of the OAS. This agreement would create the framework under which continued negotiations could take place and defined the Adjacency Line, a buffer zone along the disputed border area.[17] As a result of the Agreement, there was a relative cessation of hostilities, allowing for more OAS mediated talks. In 2008, both Guatemala and Belize accepted the OAS Secretary-General’s recommendation to submit the dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for adjudication. Subsequently, both parties signed the “Special Agreement Between Belize and Guatemala to Submit Guatemala’s Territorial, Insular and Maritime Claim to the International Court of Justice”, which commits both parties to submit the claim to the ICJ to “determine the boundaries between their respective territories and areas”, subject to a referendum held in their respective countries.[18][19] Additionally, Article 5 of the Agreement commits the parties to accept the ruling of the ICJ as final and binding.[20]

            The prolonged character of this dispute is most certainly attributed to the plethora of cultural, historical, and political factors involved. In addition, Belize’s sovereignty status throughout much of the dispute only served to further complicate settlement attempts. The convergence of Guatemala’s economic interests and hardline politics, Britain’s deteriorating role as a colonial administrator and Belize’s campaign for independence ultimately created insurmountable obstacles for negotiation as a viable dispute settlement mechanism. Although there was some early success following negotiations between Guatemala and Britain, leading up to the Treaty of 1859, there is very little contemporary evidence for negotiation being an appropriate settlement mechanism in this case. Mediation, namely by the OAS, however, has proved the more effective mechanism. The presence of an objective international body with no readily apparent political agenda that can create a framework and make feasible recommendations appears to be the method that can make the most progress toward resolution.


Recent Developments and Future Prospects

            On April 15, 2018, Guatemala passed a referendum to submit the dispute to the ICJ for adjudication. The referendum passed with 95.88% of citizens casting their vote in favor of submission, despite a voter turn out of only 25% of the eligible population.[21] This referendum was held in accordance with their obligation under Article 7 of the “Special Agreement Between Belize and Guatemala to Submit Guatemala’s Territorial, Insular, and Maritime Claim to the International Court of Justice”. In addition, Belize’s government recently announced that it has set a date to hold a similar referendum on April 10th, 2019, as per its obligation under the Special Agreement.[22] Although Article 7 stipulates that the referendum should be held in both countries, simultaneously, this exhibits a serious willingness to submit the dispute to ICJ jurisdiction and reach a legally binding resolution.

            However, as with any legal case, in order to properly assess the potential for specific outcomes, it is helpful to examine the legal opinions of the case.  Belize has a significant amount at stake in this dispute, as a ruling supporting Guatemala’s claim could potentially see over half of the country ceded to Guatemala.[23] Concern over the outcome, coupled with public unwillingness to submit to outside jurisdiction, has caused substantial civil unrest in Belize domestically.[24] However, there is considerable legal opinion attesting to the strength of Belize’s case, namely on the point of its long-standing exercise of effective control over the territory. Although there is debate as to the force of the various treaties cited by both Belize and Guatemala, it seems clear that Britain originally was in possession of and administered the territory of British Honduras and later Belize, and then subsequently passed on the possession of the territory to the current government of Belize. It would certainly be detrimental to the weight of Guatemala’s title claim if it is shown that there is no evidence of Guatemalan activity in the disputed area.[25] Additionally, a case that has been cited in these legal opinions as showing similarities with this case and potentially having an impact on the ICJ decision is the Case Concerning the Territorial Dispute (Libyan Arab Jamahiriya v. Chad). The ICJ ruling, in that case, showed that a boundary established by a treaty takes on a legal personality of its own, independent of the treaty itself.[26]

            While an ICJ decision on the dispute will answer some very long-standing legal questions regarding sovereignty in the disputed area, there are also other factors to consider beyond the ruling that could affect future settlement of the dispute. The most obvious of which is the public sentiment toward submission of the dispute to the ICJ. Strong opposition and protests in both countries have stymied dispute resolution mechanisms in the past and until Belize holds its referendum it will be difficult to know if a similar situation will arise in this case. Another concern among the parties is compliance once an ICJ ruling is handed down. The ICJ’s track record of compliance is closely debated, especially in the cases following the Nicaragua v. United States case.[27] However, in the instance of a ruling upholding Belize’s claim, there would be no need to re-draw the boundary lines, potentially helping to simplify compliance with the ruling.[28] It is difficult to predict which factors will play a role in facilitating or obstructing a dispute settlement, but a proper analysis of those factors can aid in the understanding its potential outcomes.



            The territorial dispute between Belize and Guatemala has a long history, dating back to before the inception of either country. Their colonial experiences, although considerably different, have had a direct impact on the creation of this dispute as well as the discourse regarding its resolution. Additionally, the protracted nature and historical backgrounds of the parties involved in the dispute has given rise to a multitude of political, economic, and social factors influencing its potential resolution. Furthermore, the complexity of these motivational factors, on the part of both parties, has often proven, throughout the course of this dispute, to be a serious detriment to the effectiveness of negotiation. While negotiation can certainly bear fruit as a dispute settlement mechanism, without mediation from an objective third party, it is difficult to see its viability in a case with such engrained political interests. The mediated talks by the OAS are a prime example of the appropriateness of this dispute settlement mechanism in this case, given the significant progress made as a result of those talks. Although the submission to the ICJ stipulated by the Special Agreement is in no way a guarantee of unimpeded resolution or compliance, it is the first significant step toward a binding resolution of the dispute in over 200 years. 





[1] Merrill, Tim. “Belize: A Country Study.” Library of Congress, Federal Research Division, 1992,






                International Legal Materials, vol. 48, no. 2, 2009, pp. 250–252. JSTOR,


[3] Lauterpacht, Elihu, et al. Legal Opinion on Guatemala’s Territorial Claim to Belize. 2001,



[4] Ibid.

[5] “THE BELIZE POSITION.” Belize-Guatemala Relations, Government of Belize, 2003,



[6] “The Guatemala-British Honduras Dispute.” The International Law Quarterly, 1948, pp. 53–57.


[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “THE BELIZE POSITION.” Belize-Guatemala Relations, Government of Belize, 2003,



[10] “The Guatemala-British Honduras Dispute.” The International Law Quarterly, 1948, pp. 53–57.


[11] “THE BELIZE POSITION.” Belize-Guatemala Relations, Government of Belize, 2003,



[12] Thorndike, Tony. “The Conundrum of Belize: An Anatomy of a Dispute.” Social and Economic

                    Studies, vol. 32, no. 2, June 1983, pp. 65–102. JSTOR,

[13] Merrill, Tim. “Belize: A Country Study.” Library of Congress, Federal Research Division, 1992,



[14] Thorndike, Tony. “The Conundrum of Belize: An Anatomy of a Dispute.” Social and Economic

                    Studies, vol. 32, no. 2, June 1983, pp. 65–102. JSTOR,

[15] Merrill, Tim. “Belize: A Country Study.” Library of Congress, Federal Research Division, 1992,



[16] “Guatemala Launches an Investigation into Border Incident | Channel5Belize.Com.” Channel 5

                     Belize, 26 Jan. 2000,

[17] “Belize and Guatemala Dispute.” OAS | Organization of American States,


[18] Ibid.



                       INTERNATIONAL COURT OF JUSTICE.” 


[20] Ibid.

[21] Burack, Cristina. “Guatemala Votes on Sending Belize Territory Dispute to International Court of

                        Justice.” DW.COM, 15 Apr. 2018,


[22] “Belize to Hold National Referendum for ICJ on April 10th 2019.” Breaking Belize News, 30 Apr.



[23] “Belize-Guatemala Border Dispute.”, 2018,


[24] “The Guatemalan Claim and the ICJ.” Belize News and Opinion on,

                       17 Apr. 2018,


[25] Lauterpacht, Elihu, et al. Legal Opinion on Guatemala’s Territorial Claim to Belize. 2001,



[26] Ibid.

[27] Llamzon, Aloysius P. “ Jurisdiction and Compliance in Recent Decisions of the International Court

                     of Justice .” The European Journal of International Law, vol. 18, no. 5, 2008, pp. 851–852.,


[28] “The Guatemalan Claim and the ICJ.” Belize News and Opinion on,

                    17 Apr. 2018,

The editorial staff of The Law Review at Johns Hopkins does not endorse the opinions expressed in individually published articles.

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