Presentation by

Jean Ricot Dormeus, OAS Representative in Guyana

Foundational Skills Peer-to-Peer Seminar for OAS Representatives

Barbados, September 15, 2016


The OAS has had a hand in safer borders in the Americas


Current events in the Americas have called our attention to border and migration issues. Costa Rica and Nicaragua have faced off in order to define maritime boundaries both in the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. They have failed to achieve success after negotiations dating back to 1976. Three other instances speak loud and clear:


  1. The political agenda in the United States has focused more and more on border and migration issues, in particular since last November presidential elections. New developments have impacted the tone and quality of relations among North America countries. Migrants have attempted to find safe haven in Canada from the dream land.
  2. Let us say that travel duty took you to Belize mid-August. You opened the paper and it would jump out at you that the Guatemalan Congress has approved the holding of a Referendum to take Guatemala’s claim to Belize territory to the International Court of Justice. And last year, a Guatemalan teenager was killed on the Belize – Guatemala border by Belizean forces in the context of the border dispute between the two countries.
  3. Let’s move back to May 2015. The very day Guyanese President David Granger was sworn in, the Venezuelan Government issued a decree confirming their claim on Guyana’s land, in particular the Essequibo region and extending their maritime control area, thus encroaching on Guyana’s waters.


Border issues take me back to the turn of the century when I was Chief Negotiator for Haiti on Migration and Border issues in the context of the Haiti – Dominican Republic Joint Commission. Wonderful experience! Working toward the convergence of opposite positions and getting good results in a tough negotiation was exciting, especially after some expected outcome was reached.  Let me tell you, border and migration issues can be very challenging, border and migration issues are time consuming, border and migration issues do stifle development opportunities.


But, “wait a minute”, you may say, we are talking about the Americas, a Zone of Peace. And where does the Organization of American States (OAS) fit in? Excellent question that alludes to a debate on what sometimes seems to be an existential topic! Is it not fair to say that the OAS has played an important role in the region’s security architecture, thus creating a setting conducive to the pacific settlement of border disputes? Do dialogue, cooperation and the promotion of and democratic values not help to keep low intensity border and territorial disputes in check? Have they not created better approaches to controlling migration flows and facilitating migrants’ social insertion? 


Despite bilateral and multilateral efforts, border issues are far from being settled. Since the start of this century, five Latin American boundary disputes between neighboring states have resulted in relative use of force. Many disputes are now cold, even forgotten, others still cry for attention. 


 Did you know that my country Haiti has a claim against the US over a tiny island called Navassa? It is occupied by the big neighbor, but it still shows in the Haitian constitution. Are you aware that a maritime boundary dispute appears to linger between Venezuela and Dominica, in particular over the extension of the Economic Exclusive Zone in the context of Birds Island?


On all accounts, it seems that border disputes are there to stay. Can you imagine Argentina and the UK putting to sleep for good the dispute over the Malvinas Island? Conflict is inherent in human nature and only a naïve approach would authorize us to hope that there may come a conflict free era. Therefore, just like a chronic disease, it is to be treated, monitored and hopefully prevented.


Generally, border disputes are of three types: border demarcation, territorial dispute and border migration dispute with contiguity or proximity as a major factor. They usually flow from the decolonization process, treaties that are not executed and fall into oblivion, and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. They are manifest or latent. Those that are latent are sometimes reactivated for three main reasons: political opportunism or just brinkmanship, resource development especially with the extension of maritime rights and cross-border migration influx due to domestic situations.


Pacific solution to border conflict often amounts to devise a no-lose or non-zero sum solution. This is a complex and lengthy process. Most of the time, it flows from treaty interpretation, uti possidetis juris rule or recognized historical boundaries, and evidence of effective control. 


The World Wars had a significant impact on the psyche of the Americas. The countries of the region witnessed the devastations, suffering and despair. They wanted to prevent such a scourge from reaching the shores of the continent, especially in the context of the cold war. They crafted a hemispheric defense doctrine and designed security architecture to preserve peace and manage conflicts. This security architecture rested upon a tripod: the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (TIAR) or Pact of Rio signed in 1947, the Treaty on Pacific Settlement of Disputes or Pact of Bogota signed in 1948 and the OAS Charter signed in 1948 as well.


Five of the eight purposes established in the OAS Charter refer to the issue of peace and security. The very first one is “to strengthen the peace and security of the continent” and the third one speaks to prevention and settlement: “To prevent possible causes of difficulties and to ensure the pacific settlement of disputes that may arise among the Member States”. You will notice that in the framework of the Charter, security takes priority. The hemispheric doctrine defined in the TIAR is emphasized as a principle in the Charter: “An act of aggression against one American State is an act of aggression against all the other American States”.


This principle is enshrined in Chapter VI of the Charter. It is a collective self-defense or continental solidarity doctrine which aims at prevention and deterrence, as unity makes strength. For its part, Chapter V spells out the hemispheric approach to peaceful settlement to conflicts. It goes: “The following are peaceful procedures: direct negotiation, good offices, mediation, investigation and conciliation, judicial settlement, arbitration, and those which the parties to the dispute may especially agree upon at any time”.


On that security platform, the OAS has been playing a paramount role in maintaining security in the Americas. You will notice that as the cold war was brought to an end, the OAS priority focus has shifted to strengthening democracy. However, the organization is still actively promoting conflict prevention and assisting conflicting member states. For the sake of effectiveness, it has developed a toolkit through the Committee on Hemispheric Security of the Permanent Council and Conferences on Security. The OAS has also developed confidence building measures to facilitate border issues settlement.


In 2000, the security platform was strengthened with the addition of the Peace Fund. I was privileged to attend the 30th Session of the General Assembly in Windsor, Canada, which adopted Resolution 1756 establishing the Peace Fund: Peaceful Settlement of Territorial Disputes. This Fund aims to provide member states that so request with financial resources to assist with defraying the costs of proceedings previously agreed to by the parties for the peaceful resolution of territorial disputes among member states.  As we can see, the Fund would act as an incentive for conflicting parties to embrace the peaceful settlement process and for the OAS to have the requisite resources to offer support.


The Peace Fund has been very instrumental in mediating the territorial dispute between Belize and Guatemala. Secretary General Luis Almagro, following in the footsteps of his predecessors, has worked for the effective management of this dispute and has been exploring ways to bring it to a mutually accepted end.


The Fund also assisted in conflicts between Honduras and El Salvador, between Honduras and Nicaragua, between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, and between Belize and Ecuador. We will expand later on the critical role played by the OAS in the dispute between Belize and Guatemala.


Before going further, it is important to mention that not only has the OAS devised direct security strategy in regard to border and territorial dispute, but it has pursued indirect avenues that decrease the likelihood of conflicts and wars. In fact, the other pillars of the OAS, strengthening democracy, promoting integral development and protecting human rights largely contribute to contain disputes where they exist and even prevent them from breaking out. Cooperation in these areas therefore provides tools to preserve peace.


Now how about taking a look at specific border disputes that have affected the Americas? Would we say that the OAS has satisfactorily played its role in monitoring, advising or pursuing settlement solutions in border disputes in the Americas? Are there past mistakes to learn from and other potential approaches to explore?


Just a quick reminder. Four major inter-American wars took place between the middle of the 19th century and the 1930s:

  • The Mexican-American War of 1846
  • The War of the Triple Alliance between 1864 and 1870 (Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay)
  • The War of the Pacific between 1870 and 1883 between Chile and Bolivia
  • The Chaco War in 1934 between Paraguay and Bolivia.


As mentioned earlier, these episodes, the devastations of First and Second World Wars, and the context of the cold war had brought the Americas to take steps towards a Zone of Peace by putting in place the regional security framework described above.


In this new setting, Central America has been the theater of most disputes. Nicaragua had militarized disputes with four states (Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Colombia). Venezuela and Honduras have each had militarized disputes with three neighboring states (Guyana, Colombia and Caribbean Islands in the case of Venezuela; Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua in the case of Honduras). Four countries have each had militarized disputes with two neighbors El Salvador (Nicaragua and Honduras), Guatemala (Belize and Honduras), Guyana (Venezuela and Suriname), and Colombia (Venezuela and Nicaragua).


South America has had six disputes before the International Court of Justice:

  • Maritime and territorial dispute between Colombia and Nicaragua
  • Dispute between Argentina and Uruguay over the establishment of a pulp mill on the Uruguay River
  • Maritime boundary dispute between Chile and Peru
  • Dispute between Ecuador and Colombia over chemicals dropped from airplanes to eradicate illegal crops
  • Claim of Bolivia against Chile for access to the sea.
  • Maritime boundaries dispute between Costa Rica and Nicaragua both in the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.


The OAS has recorded some significant success in helping to manage or settle border disputes. The stellar example would be the role the organization played in bringing an end to the Soccer War between Honduras and El Salvador in 1969. It is worth noting that that conflict was migration related and erupted on the heels of a soccer qualifying game. The OAS put pressure on El Salvador whose army attacked Honduras positions. Thanks to the organization’s initiatives, the violent phase of the war ended rapidly.


Illustrative of border and migration disputes in the Americas are these three cases, two of which the OAS is facilitating a solution to: Belize – Guatemala, Haiti – Dominican Republic and Guyana – Venezuela.


The Belize – Guatemala dispute predates Belize’s independence. As previous attempts to settle the disputes were unsuccessful, in March 2000, the governments of Belize and Guatemala restarted talks under the auspices of the Secretary General of the OAS. On November 8, 2000, Belize and Guatemala signed the first Agreement on Confidence Building Measures, through which the two parties agreed to respect an “Adjacency Line” between each country and an “Adjacency Zone” extending one kilometer east and west from this line. On February 7, 2003, the Foreign Ministers of Belize and Guatemala signed a second Agreement to Establish a Transition Process and Confidence-Building Measures, which was later amended in September 2005 through the “Agreement on a Framework for Negotiations and Confidence-Building Measures ”. 


Central to the second agreement was the establishment of the OAS Office in the Adjacency Zone for the purpose of fostering community-to-community contacts across the Adjacency Line and verifying any transgression of the established confidence-building measures and any incidents which may occur in that Zone. The Agreement also called for the establishment of a Group of Friends of the Belize-Guatemala Transition Process (the “Group of Friends”), consisting of OAS Member and Observer States, and others interested in supporting a peaceful resolution to the territorial differendum. 


In 2008, after almost two years of negotiations, in which a certain degree of rapprochement was achieved, the Parties failed to reach an agreement. The Secretary General therefore recommended that the most appropriate venue for resolving the differendum would be the International Court of Justice. Both countries assented and on December 8, 2008, the Foreign Ministers of Belize and Guatemala signed, at OAS headquarters, the “Special Agreement between Guatemala and Belize to submit the territorial, insular and maritime claim of Guatemala to the International Court of Justice.” A Referendum to confirm this option is yet to be held in both countries.


In the meantime, despite efforts to increase cooperation and spur confidence, incidents such as the teenager killing I referred to in the beginning are recorded and the OAS has often had to facilitate de-escalation of tensions.


The dispute between Haiti and the Dominican Republic is perhaps less notorious, yet insidious and deep seated. It involves strong emotional historic components. Do you remember that the Dominican Republic got its independence from Haiti? You probably do. Do you also remember that in 1937 Dominican forces killed thousands of Haitians in the parsley massacre over border migration issues? Perhaps. Because of the difference in development level, migration flows continue fueling political opportunism and a significant level of xenophobia. That led to the DR Constitutional Court Ruling TC 168/13 which retroactively deprives Dominicans of Haitian descent of their nationality and forcing them to go through a complex process to get residency. 


You may rightly suspect that much risk is associated with such an action. Thousands of people fall in situation of statelessness and see their basic rights systematically violated. We know that a massacre occurred in 1937 over migration issues. We remember that in 1969 El Salvador and Honduras went to war over border migration issues. Therefore, this situation needs monitoring and containing. That is exactly what the OAS has been doing.


In this denationalization situation, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission issued a report in December 2015 pointing to the violation of the rights of victims. Further, the General Secretariat appointed a fact finding mission for an assessment. As a result of that mission, a project to support the regularization process of about 90,000 Haitian nationals has been established. 


Finally, I would like to touch on the dispute between Guyana and Venezuela. The OAS has not been involved in facilitating a settlement process for historical reasons.  However, the organization was used as battle ground as Venezuela objected Guyana’s bid to become a member state after independence in 1966 until 1990. 


Venezuela claimed more than half of the territory of the British colony of Guyana at the time of the Latin American wars of independence, a dispute that was settled by arbitration in 1899. In 1962 Venezuela declared that it would no longer abide by the arbitration decision, which ceded mineral-rich territory in the Orinoco basin to Guyana. Through the Geneva Agreement in 1966, a border commission was set up with representatives from Guyana, Venezuela and Great Britain. A critical aspect of the Geneva Agreement is Article IV, which makes provision for the involvement of the Secretary General of the United Nations, who “shall choose another means stipulated in Article 33 of the Charter of the United Nations, and so on until the controversy has been resolved or until all means of peaceful settlement there contemplated have been exhausted.”


The Agreement also specified that “no new claim or enlargement of an existing claim to territorial sovereignty in these territories (of Venezuela and British Guiana) shall be asserted while this Agreement is in force, nor shall any claim whatsoever be asserted otherwise than in the Mixed Commission while that Commission is in being.” But even as the Mixed Commission was meeting, Venezuela seized Guyana’s half of Ankoko Island.


Relations between Georgetown and Caracas have deteriorated over the last two years since the Venezuelan government issued a decree laying claim to most of Guyana’s Atlantic waters. The Venezuelan decree had followed closely on the heels of an announcement by US Company ExxonMobil of a significant oil find in Guyana’s waters off the Demerara coast. The Venezuelan decree laid claim to this area. This sparked a vigorous campaign by Guyana to internationalize the issue and up the pressure on Caracas to withdraw the decree. 


Caracas later withdrew the decree and issued a new one which Guyana still found objectionable. Subsequently, last September, Presidents Granger and Maduro met the UN Secretary-General and agreed to a number of steps. Guyana has called for a juridical settlement but Venezuela is not in favor of this. Several UN missions have visited Guyana and Venezuela to listen to the two sides and decisions are expected to be made. If by December 2017, no mutually accepted solution is reached, the UN Secretary is likely to refer the issue to the ICJ for adjudication.


As we have seen, border and migration disputes require protracted efforts, as they are often very complex and hard to resolve. In the Americas, the OAS efforts to monitor, manage, and facilitate solutions to these controversies have produced significant results, but there is room for more to be done. Therefore, should the organization slow down or stop trying? Absolutely not. As we know in sports, we miss one hundred percent of the shots we did not take, and also winners never quit and quitters never win. 


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