Stabroek News
August 26, 2001

Venezuela's controversy with Guyana, unlike the dispute with Suriname, comes under multilateral auspices. The operative document is the Geneva Agreement of February 17, 1966, between the Government of Venezuela and the Government of the United Kingdom "in consultation with the Government of British Guiana," although it must be noted that Prime Minister Burnham's signature is also on the agreement.

It has been suggested in the press recently that Geneva is impeding a resolution of the controversy, which would be best solved by recourse to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. In the light of that view, therefore, it might be worth looking again at what the agreement's provisions actually are. Its initial articles deal with the establishment and terms of reference of a Mixed Commission, which was charged with "seeking satisfactory solutions for the practical settlement of the controversy... " The commission had four years to come to a resolution.

As the older generation will know, the Mixed Commission was set up, and failed to arrive at an agreement within the specified time-frame. As such, therefore, Article IV of Geneva required that the two Governments should then without delay choose one of the means of peaceful settlement provided for in Article 33 of the Charter of the United Nations.

If within three months of receiving the final report of the Mixed Commission, the Governments of Venezuela and Guyana could not agree on a means of settlement, then they had to refer the matter "to an appropriate international organ upon which they both agree, or, failing agreement on this point, to the Secretary-General of the United Nations."

Article IV goes on to say that if the means chosen do not lead to a solution, "the said organ or... the Secretary-General of the UN shall choose another of the means stipulated in Article 33 of the Charter of the United Nations, and so on until the controversy has been resolved or until all the means of peaceful settlement there contemplated have been exhausted." The controversy is at present with the Secretary-General of the UN.

And as for Article 33 of the UN Charter, that reads as follows:

"1. The parties to any dispute, the continuance of which is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security, shall, first of all, seek a solution by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their own choice... "

In other words, there is nothing in the Geneva Agreement which precludes recourse to the ICJ. On the contrary, it is clearly implied as an option in Article 33. In addition, it must be said that the critics of Geneva who wish to take the controversy to the Hague must be referring to the nullity question and nothing else; the substantive award of 1899 has been recognized by all Guyana governments as a "full, final and perfect settlement."

The critical thing is, of course, that both Guyana and Venezuela have to concur in whatever means of settlement are chosen. And to all outward appearances that has not happened as yet. At the present time we have a Good Officer appointed by the UN Secretary General addressing the issue, whose brief presumably encompasses, among other things, finding a mutually acceptable means of resolving the controversy.

What the preferred mode of settlement of the various Guyana Governments who have dealt with the issue over the last thirty-five years has been, has never gone into the public domain. Either it was to take nullity to the ICJ, or it was not. If it was, then it is difficult to see how, if the Venezuelans could not be coaxed to the Hague under Geneva, they would be persuaded to go if the Geneva Agreement were abrogated.

And even if the ICJ has not been the first choice of any Guyana Government under Geneva, it is still difficult to understand how Venezuela, which has made no secret of her distaste for a judicial settlement, would be persuaded to accept this course if the Geneva Agreement were not there. In other words, the issue is not Geneva or not Geneva, it is the preferred means of settlement from Guyana's point of view, and the strategies needed to get our neighbour to the west to accede to those means. And that is a discussion best not held in the full glare of publicity.

The critics of Geneva consider that the agreement should never have been signed, although Mr Cedric Joseph in his work Anglo-American Diplomacy... puts a persuasive case for regarding it as the culmination of a "course of policy adjustments" by the British beginning in 1962. The genesis of the agreement, however, is not the issue here. At this stage it doesn't matter what its origins. What matters is that currently it affords this country a temporary umbrella against a possible hailstorm from the west. We will exhaust the means listed under Article 33 sooner or later, no doubt, and when that happens we had better be prepared for what we do next.

In addition it must be emphasized that unilaterally abandoning an international pact would have serious repercussions for us in the diplomatic arena, and would do our cause enormous damage. And as has been said many times before, that cause is just.

At this stage the administration needs to stop dithering. Our border problems are a national issue which require a national position, worked out in conjunction with the opposition. Contrary to what is sometimes supposed, solving our frontier difficulties will not be easy; there are all kinds of hidden complexities which require serious work in several fields, in addition to systematic contingency planning. The Government cannot wait until events overtake it.