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FALQs: Guyana-Venezuela Territorial Dispute

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The following is a guest post by  Stephania Alvarez, Foreign Law Specialist at the Global Legal Research Directorate of the Law Library of Congress. It is part of our Frequently Asked Legal Questions series.

The Venezuelan National Assembly issued a statement on September 23 of 2023, advocating for a referendum previously sanctioned by the Assembly on September 21, regarding Venezuela’s territorial claim to the Essequibo region. This region, awarded to the United Kingdom as British Guiana in 1899, and currently part of the Cooperative Republic of  Guyana (commonly known as Guyana), remains a contentious issue.

On December 1, 2023, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) adjudicated Guyana’s request for the indication of provisional measures in this dispute, ruled that Venezuela must abstain from taking any action that could alter the current status quo in the contested Essequibo region, which is under the administrative control and governance of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana.

On December 3, 2023, the National Electoral Council of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (commonly known as Venezuela) initiated a national referendum with five questions concerning the ongoing territorial dispute over the Essequibo region. This was followed by the passage of the bill for the defense of Guyana Essequibo by the National Assembly, which was aimed at reinforcing Venezuela’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

On December 14, 2023, Venezuela and Guyana jointly declared their commitment to a peaceful resolution of this dispute through bilateral dialogue.

What is the dispute about?

The dispute revolves around the territorial claim to the Essequibo region, which constitutes more than two-thirds of Guyana’s land area. This area, administered by Guyana since 1899, encompasses approximately 159,000sq km2, featuring significant and rich in natural resources, including the world’s largest per capita reserves of crude oil. Venezuela asserts sovereignty over this region, citing historical boundaries from the Spanish colonial era, and dismisses the 1899 Paris Arbitral Award, which has been contested by this country since 1962. Conversely, Guyana upholds that the border is as determined by this arbitral award.

Why does Venezuela want to include this territory?

Venezuela’s interest in the Essequibo region stems from a combination of historical claims, economic interests, and strategic considerations. Venezuela’s contention over the Essequibo region dates to the early 19th century, rooted in its belief that the territory rightfully belonged to it since the Spanish colonial era. Its interest has intensified following the discovery of substantial crude oil deposits off Guyana’s coast, making the region a strategic asset. This area is not only rich in oil, but also other valuable natural resources such as iron, gold, diamonds, and uranium, which represent a lucrative opportunity considering the economic struggles it has endured for decades. Geographically, the Essequibo region holds strategic importance for Venezuela since it provides direct access to the Atlantic Ocean, diversifying Venezuela’s maritime outlets which are currently confined largely to the Caribbean.

What was the Venezuelan referendum about?

The Venezuelan referendum mandated by President Maduro, comprised questions aimed at bolstering Venezuela’s territorial claims over parts of Guyana and challenging the jurisdiction of the ICJ. The questions sought ratification of Venezuela’s longstanding rejection of the ICJs jurisdiction, endorsement for creating a new Venezuelan state in the Essequibo region of Guyana, and proposed issuing Venezuelan citizenship and identification documents to the local population in this area.

Public opinion on participation in the referendum is distinctly divided; however, some actors oppose voting in the referendum as they believe the Essequibo Region is part of Venezuela. Following the consultative referendum, the National Electoral Council reported over 10 million votes, yet failed to provide specific details about the voters.

What is the 1899 Paris Arbitral Award?

The 1899 Paris Arbitral Award, under the 1871 Treaty of Washington, delineated the boundaries granting Venezuela the Orinoco River mouth and adjacent lands, while assigning the land east of the Essequibo River to the United Kingdom. A joint Anglo-Venezuelan commission was charged with demarcating the boundary established by the 1899 Award, and in 1905, the boundary was demarcated, producing an official boundary map and a signed agreement.

What is the 1966 Geneva Agreement?

The 1966 Geneva Agreement, initiated after Venezuela expressed dissatisfaction with the established boundaries to the UN Secretary General, established a mixed commission of representatives from the government of British Guiana and the government of Venezuela to resolve the dispute. In case of failed negotiations, the Agreement tasked the UN Secretary-General with selecting a final resolution method, which led to the involvement of the ICJ, as per article 33 of the UN Charter.

What is the legal status of the disputed territories?

According to the ICJ, the boundary between Guyana and Venezuela was resolved through the 1899 Paris Arbitral Award and the 1966 Geneva Agreement (between the United Kingdom, British Guiana and Venezuela). The 1966 Geneva Agreement led to the UN Secretary-General’s decision to settle the controversy through the ICJ. In 2018, Guyana filed a case with the ICJ, which confirmed its jurisdiction and announced its intent to adjudicate the validity of the 1899 Award and land boundary. In 2023, Guyana requested provisional measures to the ICJ under Article 41 (1) of the ICJ Statute and Articles 73 and 74 of the ICJ Rules to halt Venezuela’s referendum. The ICJ’s 2023 Judgment prohibited Venezuela from altering the existing situation.

What additional resources does the Law Library of Congress have?

The Library of Congress houses various resources regarding the Venezuela-Guiana boundary matters including:

Additional Library of Congress resources on the territorial dispute between Guyana and Venezuela are available here.

The following general Guyana legal resources are available at the Law Library of Congress:

The Global Legal Monitor is also a great resource for legal developments in Venezuela.

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Update (1/9/24): The original post incorrectly cited to article 62(1) of the Statute of the International Court of Justice (ICJ Statute) in the “What is the legal status of the disputed territories?” section of the post. It has been edited to reflect the correct provision, art. 41(1) of the ICJ Statute.

Comments (2)

  1. The 1899 Paris Arbitral Award mentioned above makes no reference to the 1871 Treaty of Washington (US/UK). Nor does that treaty mention Venezuela or British Guiana. Rather, the 1899 Paris Arbitral Award refers to a Treaty of Arbitration (UK/VE) concluded in Washington on February 2, 1897.

  2. When you say lands East of the Essequibo were awarded to Britain is wrong. Lands West of the Essequibo were awarded to Britain, where current borders are. Please review and ammend.

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