PM Drew: Caribbean must remain “a zone of peace”

Prime Minister Terrance Drew says it is his administration’s position that the Caribbean region must remain a war free zone in the face of growing unrest in the border dispute between Guyana and Venezuela.

St.Kitts and Nevis has for decades enjoyed friendly diplomatic relations with both nations. Guyana, the only English speaking nation in South America, is a CARICOM partner. Venezuela – which has traditionally taken a regionalist position on global issues – has always lent support to its Caribbean neighbours, particularly with respect to the provision of oil and aid in times of crisis.

Over the past year however, Venezuela has taken what has been viewed in the international community as hostile measures to annex Guyana’s Essequibo region, renewing an almost 200 year old claim it has laid to the area.

The timing of the renewed claim to this region, which would account for approximately two thirds of Guyana’s land, was not lost on the world as it is incredibly rich in natural resources including timber, gold, minerals and in the coastal areas, recently discovered abundant oil reserves.

Last week, Venezuela ramped up its position when it passed into law legislation which, on paper, formally annexed the disputed region.

Venezuela’s military presence along the border between itself and Guyana has been amped up for more than a year. This has raised questions about how far Venezuela will go to lay claim to Guyana’s land.

Prime Minister Drew, who is presently chairman of the Regional Security System Council (RSS), said the matter was discussed at a recent meeting in Guyana.

While he has stated that he recognises a nation’s right to defend itself against all threats, Dr. Drew said at his Roundtable on 9th April, 2024 that war must be the absolute last resort.

“Let me say unequivocally that St. Kitts and Nevis is doing all it can, joining with the partners, to keep this area as a zone of peace. There are wars all around the world, but this area is declared a zone of peace, and we want to maintain that peace. Any war that breaks out is going to affect us, the people of Guyana, and the people of Venezuela.

“War… would be the last, last, last, last, last, last, last, last, last, last, last [resort]. I cannot say I’m a total pacifist, but I can simply say that it should be way down the list,” said Dr. Drew.

In an attempt to resolve the matter through diplomatic means the presidents of Guyana, Irfaan Ali and Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, engaged at length in St. Vincent on 14th December, 2023 during the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) meeting. At the end of the high level talks which ultimately failed to bring closure to the contentious issue, both South American Nations did agree that they would not resort to using force to settle the land dispute.

President Maduro’s move on 3rd April to sign into law Venezuela’s claim to two-thirds of Guyana puts the future in question.

Despite this, Dr. Drew says he is hopeful that diplomatic engagement on the matter can bring resolution.

“We are in the process of dialogue…using the diplomatic rule. And so in that meeting, of course, it is discussed, as we discussed at the CELAC meeting as well, which took place in St. Vincent, to get both leaders to continue to commit to this.

“Of course, there are always questions and challenges to it. We expect that, but that means we have to keep at it. But yes, it was discussed, and the position [is that] we have to do all that we can to maintain peace between Guyana and Venezuela. That is our position, that is CARICOM’s position.”

While CARICOM fell short of an outright condemnation of Venezuela’s adoption of “the Organic Law for the Defence of Guyana Essequiba”, the regional body said the South American nation had acted “dangerously” and “subverted international law”.

“In its adoption of “the Organic Law”, the Government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela has acted unilaterally, precipitously, and potentially, dangerously. In the process, it has: (i) offended “the Joint Declaration of Argyle for Dialogue and Peace between Guyana and Venezuela” of 14 December 2023; (ii) subverted international law; and (iii) signalled a possible embrace of an unworthy aggression to achieve its own articulated goals or purposes.

“CARICOM acknowledges that both Venezuela and Guyana have divergent stances on “the border issues” on all matters consequential to the border controversy and on the specific modes for their resolution. However, both countries have agreed that the issues and consequential matters are to be resolved peacefully, and in accordance with international law and its relevant mechanisms, inclusive of the Geneva Agreement of 1966.

“CARICOM acknowledges, too, that Guyana has the right to pursue its claim through the International Court of Justice (ICJ). At the same time each country renounces threats to peace and the use, or threatened use, of violence in the pursuance of their respective claims or interests.

“Accordingly, CARICOM urges the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela to refrain from any further actions that would hinder regional and hemispheric peace and stability. We insist that dialogue and an adherence to international law are the only viable paths to achieve a just and lasting settlement of the issues-at-hand. The alternatives are too horrific to contemplate. We demand, likewise, a patience and a calm, and an end to any possible unilateral, aggressive actions.”

According to a Security Council Report published on 9th April, 2024, “The dispute over the Essequibo region—an approximately 160,000 square km stretch of densely forested land that constitutes two-thirds of Guyana’s territory and is home to roughly 125,000 of its 800,000 citizens—stretches back to the 19th century, when Guyana was under colonial rule. Venezuela has laid claim to the Essequibo region since 1841, when it argued that the British Empire had encroached on Venezuelan territory in its acquisition of the territory of then-British Guiana from the Netherlands. It has also challenged the validity of the 1899 Paris Arbitral Award through which the border between Venezuela and British Guiana was decided.”

Venezuela became more insistent in its claims over the disputed region in 2015, when oil was discovered off Essequibo’s coast. In March 2018, Guyana filed an application at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), instituting proceedings against Venezuela regarding the disputed territory. In June 2018, Venezuela informed the ICJ that it believed that the court lacked jurisdiction to hear the case and announced its decision not to take part in the proceedings.

In a judgment delivered in December 2020, the ICJ decided that it had jurisdiction to “entertain Guyana’s claims concerning the validity of the 1899 Award about the frontier between British Guiana and Venezuela and the related question of the definitive settlement of the dispute regarding the land boundary between the territories of the Parties”.

An ICJ ruling regarding Guyana’s 2018 application is not expected before 2025.

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