By Riyad Insanally
In an April op-ed, Ivelaw Griffith provided us with an informative summary and analysis of the April 6 ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ), dismissing Venezuela’s preliminary objections to the case brought by Guyana to resolve the border controversy between the two countries.
In addition to addressing the lead-up to the judgment, he also highlights the reaction of Venezuelan vice president and co-agent for the case, Delcy Rodríguez, who maintains Caracas’ official line. This is to continue to reject the ICJ as a means of resolving the controversy and to assert their misplaced contention that “the 1966 Geneva Agreement is “the only valid instrument” to do so.
Notwithstanding, the excellence of Professor Griffith’s article, I believe that Venezuelan reactions are worthy of further consideration. The gist of the official reaction in Caracas, in a communiqué issued by the government on April 6, is as follows:
“Venezuela welcomes the fact that today’s incidental judgment validates our arguments: firstly, by recognizing that the unlawful and fraudulent conduct of the United Kingdom of Great Britain [sic] can be reviewed, and secondly, because it makes clear the existence and validity of the 1966 Geneva Agreement, the only valid instrument for settling this territorial controversy. It should be noted that the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela does not recognize the judicial mechanism as a means of resolving the aforementioned controversy, since it excludes the nature and purpose of this agreement.” (unofficial translation)
In fact, as Prof Griffith makes clear, the ICJ said no such thing with regard to the “conduct” of the UK or the “validity of the 1966 Geneva Agreement”. Indeed, Venezuela’s claims were roundly rejected and the case will now resume its normal course after Caracas’ delaying tactics.
This official distortion of the truth is all the more concerning in the context of another embellishment by Ms Rodríguez, during a press briefing, again on April 6, at the presidential palace of Miraflores. She is reported to have stated: “Our arguments were heard … Venezuela is the only historical inheritor of the territory of ‘la Guayana Esequiba’”, which is Venezuela’s term for the Essequibo region.
While Guyanese should be accustomed by now to the irrational propaganda emanating from Miraflores, it is interesting to note that this report on the anti-government website, La Patilla, actually mocks Ms Rodríguez’s reaction. The headline reads in English, “Bipolar Chavism invents a ‘victory’ for itself following harsh blow suffered at the Court at The Hague”. This, however, should be taken as more of an attack on the handling of the case by the Maduro regime and its self-delusion. It is not necessarily acceptance of the ICJ decision and process by the Venezuelan opposition, for the supreme irony of the political polarisation between government and opposition in Venezuela is that the only point on which they agree is the righteousness of their claim to the Essequibo region.
Thus, it was reported on April 13 that the 2015 parliament, which the opposition had won and which it keeps alive in exile as the country’s only legitimately elected body, and the government-controlled National Assembly (NA) had closed ranks on the ICJ ruling. The NA agreed to support the “policies, plans and programmes” undertaken by the Maduro regime for “the defence of the Essequibo territory” and declared its backing for the legal team working to defend the “legitimate” interests of the country. Hermann Escarrá, chair of the Special Committee for the Defence of the Territory of Guayana Esequiba and Sovereignty, asserted that the Committee would “contribute to” the public policies of the government and that it would be up to the president to decide whether to continue with the case at the ICJ on April 8, the deadline for the submission of Venezuela’s counter-memorial.
Then a flight of fantasy by Escarrá: “Or the other route, articles 36 and 37 of the United Nations Charter, we will go directly to the Security Council to resolve this situation.”
Given the UN secretary general’s decision to refer the controversy to the ICJ and the fact that the matter is still sub judice, it is highly unlikely that the Security Council would place the issue on its agenda. In any case, the June 6th election of Guyana to the Security Council in 2024-2025 would ensure that Guyana is well positioned to counter any move by Venezuela at that level.
For its part, the 2015 parliament also rejected the ICJ decision and called on the government to put together “urgently… a professional, non-political defence team, made up of experts” that would proceed to prepare the counter-memorial rejecting Guyana’s arguments. The opposition body then went on to denounce the “failure” of international policy and the “misguided” strategy of the Maduro government, which had led to the unfavourable ICJ ruling against Venezuela.
The common rejection of the ICJ ruling and the continued affirmation of Venezuela’s claim should not be surprising. The claim to the Essequibo is a highly nationalistic issue in Venezuela and neither side can afford to appear to be taking a conciliatory or even a reasonable approach to resolving the controversy, least of all in these highly charged times in the country. The increasing number of massive deposits of oil and gas discovered offshore Guyana since May 2015 – over 11 billion barrels of recoverable oil resources – which heralded a ramping up of Venezuelan revanchism, undoubtedly contributes to efforts by both sides to outdo each other in brandishing their patriotic credentials and maintaining pressure on Guyana.
What does differ, however, is the two opposing views on the conduct of the case. On the one hand, the chavista NA firmly supports the state’s position as enunciated by Ms Rodríguez and even the option to dispense with the ICJ altogether. On the other, the opposition, ever alert to the opportunity to criticise the Maduro regime, bemoans the government’s strategy and urges a more professional and inclusive approach to the preparation of a strong counter-memorial. Interestingly, this is a tacit acceptance of the authority of the ICJ, even though the opposition still considers the Geneva Agreement as the “ideal mechanism” to resolve the controversy, as maintained by Rodríguez and her government.
On April 6, the Democratic Unitary Platform, a coalition of the main opposition parties, called for national unity over the issue, stating: “The Essequibo’s strategic value should be the key to fight for our nation’s rights” and urging the government to convene a “group of high-level experts” to assist with the case.
In this respect, a statement on the ICJ decision, put out on April 14 by the Avila Group, an anti-Maduro group of Venezuelan diplomats, technocrats and academics, is also worthy of note. In expressing concern about the ICJ decision, they reaffirm “the imperative of the Venezuelan State appearing in the case” and call on the Government to “convene as soon as possible, a multidisciplinary team” of Venezuelan “jurists, historians, geographers, cartographers, internationalists and diplomats” to help with the preparation of the counter memorial, “as well as in the evaluation of any procedural action that might be taken at the Court, in defence of the interests of the Republic.” It remains to be seen whether the Maduro regime will re-evaluate its strategy and accept advice and help from the opposition, including experts perceived to be aligned with the opposition.
In contrast to the aggressive, revolutionary rhetoric of Rodríguez, president Irfaan Ali’s tone was measured and correct in his address to the nation on April 6, sticking to the facts of the case, the ruling and the procedures involved. And even though he noted that this was the second time that the ICJ was rejecting “jurisdictional objections raised by Venezuela”, there was no triumphalism. Although he expressed confidence that Guyana’s “longstanding international boundary with Venezuela will be confirmed by the Court” he was at pains to stress that Guyana remains “fully committed” to a “peaceful resolution … in accordance with international law.” That is as it should be, for the ICJ’s final ruling cannot be taken as a foregone conclusion.
What president Ali refrained from saying is that Venezuela’s policies are not only downright inimical to Guyanese interests but also contrary to the rule of international law. Ultimately, even if the Court eventually rules in Guyana’s favour, Guyana will have to be prepared for the possibility of recalcitrance if not open defiance by Venezuela. Indeed, as noted above and as has been well documented, Caracas’ attitude to the border controversy has become increasingly hostile, since the discovery of oil and gas.
This attitude by Venezuela, even with the world’s largest proven oil reserves of over 300 billion barrels, can be expected to remain unchanged and, quite possibly, get worse; this all the more so as Guyana’s oil-fuelled economy keeps on growing at an unprecedented and astounding rate in contrast to Venezuela’s economy, which has been in freefall since 2013. This situation, along with the fact that Caracas not only continues to accuse Georgetown of violating the Geneva Agreement, but also of adopting an adversarial posture at the behest of foreign corporate interests, principally ExxonMobil, therefore requires constant vigilance.