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To Go or Not to Go A Sit-Down With Senator Valerie Woods

To Go or Not to Go A Sit-Down With Senator Valerie Woods
March 23
09:14 2019

Editor’s Note – Perhaps the most recent public proponent of the YES to the ICJ vote on April 10th has been Senator Valerie Woods. Woods is a Senator politically appointed to represent the People’s United Party, which has officially taken a NO to the ICJ stance. We thought it would be enlightening to sit with Woods to find out what prompted her to come to that decision, and also if she envisions any repercussions from the Party she represents.

The Reporter: Senator Woods, you have come out as recently as last week to state that your position is that you will vote YES to the ICJ on April 10th. In your mind, and in a nutshell, what is the most compelling argument persuading you to vote YES?

Senator Woods: The most compelling point is that we would be going to the ICJ strictly on the basis of international law. This is Article 38 (1) of the ICJ Statute, which specifies the rules of law that the Court shall apply to settle disputes between countries. There are four (4) of these applicable rules: treaties, international customary law, general principles of law and judicial decisions and writings. On reading about all the evidence in support of Belize, it is clear that Belize meets all these and trumps every argument Guatemala has made in support of its claim.

First, the ICJ will consider the relevant treaties and there are two: the 1859 Treaty that established the border between Belize and Guatemala and the 1931 Exchange of Notes that confirms and affirms the border. Second, there is international customary law on effective control of territory occupation. Only Belize can demonstrate that for over 200 years, it is Britain/Belize that has had effective occupation, administration, control and title of all of our territory. Nowhere in our history has Guatemala ever controlled or owned any part of our territory, not even the Sarstoon. Guatemala cannot prove that it has ever demonstrated sovereignty or possession of Belize or any part of it. We all know this fact through our history classes in schools and various history books. Third, the other rule that the ICJ will look at is the principle of law recognized by civilized nations, which is that of the right of self-determination as a people. No one can be forced to be another nationality. This is one of the highest principles recognized in the granting of our independence. Only Belize can prove and demonstrate this through the several resolutions at the United Nations that support our legal title to our territory and our independence in 1981 with unanimous support by the UN with all our territory intact. This cannot be undone or taken back. Guatemala is the only country that is disputing the border and has no legal basis to do so. Fourth, the ICJ will look at past ICJ rulings, judicial decisions and of teachings of highly qualified experts in international law. Again, here Belize trumps Guatemala. All legal opinions on this border dispute, including those that Guatemala commissioned, clearly conclude that Guatemala does not have a case and that Belize’s position is extremely strong. In addition to this, past ICJ decisions on boundary disputes, as just one example the Libya and the Chad border dispute case, have established precedents in support of Belize’s position.

Therefore, when forced to justify its unfounded claim according to international law, whether for part, half or whole of Belize, Guatemala simply does not have a case and does not stand a chance.

The Reporter: The ICJ question is one of the most critical of our time. What is your opinion of the education/propaganda campaign carried out by the government pre-referendum? Would you have wanted to see it less slanted? Do you believe it has been effective?

Senator Woods: I do think the education campaign and general public awareness on all things Belize and Guatemala could have been done differently and should have been done much earlier. In fact, because Guatemala’s unfounded claim has always been used as a political tool since Independence, and particularly after 1992 with the passage of the Maritime Areas Act, this fact-based education should have been ongoing from then. I don’t just put this responsibility on that of past and present governments. I put this responsibility on all of us: the media, our educational system, and ourselves. We each have an individual responsibility to be informed, ask questions and to think for ourselves. Although the education campaign has not been the ideal, nothing in life ever is, it does not take away from the facts of Belize’s strong position on going to the ICJ and it is not a reason to not go. The facts have not changed.

The Reporter: Proponents for both the ‘YES’ and ‘NO’ have been accused of fear mongering, intimidation, misleading, misrepresentation and bullying. Give us your thoughts on the ‘behaviour’ and tactics of both sides leading up to Referendum.

Senator Woods: Passions are high on both sides and no one can be faulted for that. We all love Belize. I absolutely condemn the awful comments that have been hurled for having a difference of opinion. From traitors to tyrants, bullies to idiots. And even with our difference of opinions, none of us like to be dictated to or have our concerns dismissed; therefore, how we say things matter just as much as what we are saying. We must be able to debate in this country without being disrespectful and without getting personal with one another especially on a national issue. As a national issue this should have united us against Guatemala and not divide us. Even the Republicans and the Democrats of the USA, the Labour and the Conservatives in the UK have put party politics aside and come together in times of national need. Armed with the facts, we should not be operating in fear and we should not be instilling fear. It doesn’t matter what Guatemala says. We know better. Our history teachers have taught us better. International law is on our side and tells us better. So it is most unfortunate that fear mongering has set in.

The Reporter: those who are advocating for a NO, particularly in the People’s United Party, have been openly critical of what is happening at the Vital Stats Department. In fact, even the Chief Elections Officer has admitted that 2500 Belizeans were not able to re-register because their documents could not be found. The PUP has said – let us wait until we get it right so that no Belizean is disenfranchised. The PUP has also called for the amending of the Maritime Areas Act, the Referendum Act and the Representation of the People Act (to allow Belizeans living abroad to vote), all which they say would strengthen our case at the ICJ – your thoughts on position of ‘delay until we get it right.’

Senator Woods: As mentioned before based on the rules under which we would be going to the ICJ, our case at the ICJ is extremely strong and this has been supported by world-renowned international law experts including former ICJ judges. It has taken us so long and many millions to get to the position where Guatemala agrees to settle this matter strictly on this legal basis, strictly on Article 38 (1) of the ICJ Statute. This is an opportunity we cannot afford to miss. Of course, I would have preferred that the Maritime Areas Act was amended, and there is still time to do that after the Referendum, regardless if it is a Yes or a No outcome. In the senate we pushed for this but due to party politics it was rejected. The fact that our domestic law has not changed yet (and I stress yet) does not weaken our case based on the 4 rules of the ICJ mentioned above.

On Vital Statistics, if we are to be honest with each other, we all know this has been a mess for decades no matter which party has been in government. It really needs to be better managed. There were issues with the last re-registration exercise and there are issues with this one. It is very unfortunate and while it needs to be addressed it will take some time to correct and get it to the point where there are no sloppy errors for example and where it is not a burdensome procedure for any of us to get our vital documents.

Regarding Belizeans living abroad, even from previous re-registration exercises and all previous General Elections, the law has not changed. The referendum debate has shined the spotlight on a very important topic, which is, how can we make it easier for Belizeans living abroad to be registered to vote (not just for a referendum on the ICJ but for all elections). Would it apply to Belizeans living abroad who are not paying taxes in Belize? Can there be a particular system for Belizean students 18 years and older who are away on study leave? Do we want absentee voting and if we do, what would be the safeguards for transparency and accountability? So the diaspora question goes beyond this referendum and there should be a healthy debate on it to determine if our laws will be changed and to what extent it can or should be changed. The PUP has always been the party of social justice so I am confident the next PUP government will address these issues of governance and management of our electoral process in a more responsible and fair manner.

The Reporter: The PUP is seeking an injunction that would effectively halt the Referendum. They say that the Special Agreement should have been taken to the House to be voted on. They say that the government has no authority to arbitrarily give foreign judges the authority to decide Belize’s borders, when that is already spelled out in our Constitution. Your thoughts on that argument, and on the chances of success of that application.

Senator Woods: It is the right of any Belizean or organization to challenge the decisions of any government before a court of law. We all await the outcome of the case on April 1st. Whether the referendum is held April 10th or whether it is held at some later date, my position to go to the ICJ will not change because the facts on the ground and based on international law remain the same.

The Reporter: Much attention has been paid to the fact that you are a PUP-appointed Senator, and your position is different than that which has been taken by the Party. In fact, we understand, there are some who unofficially have been calling for you to resign or be removed, so to speak. Have you felt any pressure officially from the Party, either before coming to a decision or after stating your decision?

Senator Woods: I voiced my views on a national (not a partisan, political, or general election) issue. There are those in the party who disagree with me and there are those who have thanked me. So no, I have not been asked to resign nor have I felt pressured to resign. There will be differences of opinions on this national issue, but we are still one party, one that is determined to (and will) win the next general election. However, April 10th is not about the PUP or the UDP. It is about Belize and what Belizeans will decide.

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