Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro is being ordered by the World Court to refrain from his efforts to take control of an oil- and mineral-rich area in neighboring Guyana that is the subject of a Sunday referendum in his troubled nation and an ongoing border dispute between the two countries.
In a legally binding decision, the United Nations International Court of Justice said Friday that, “pending a final decision in the case, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela shall refrain from taking any action which would modify the situation that currently prevails in the territory in dispute, whereby the Co-operative Republic of Guyana administers and exercises control over that area.”
The unanimous 25-page decision was issued after Guyana asked the Court to stop Maduro from seeking a blank check from his voters on Sunday to invade and seize a large chunk of land slightly smaller than the state of Florida, called the Essequibo region. Guyana argues that the upcoming referendum is illegal and would alter the rights and citizenship of more than 230,000 Guyanese in the region who have no ties to the Spanish-speaking country.
Though the Court warned Maduro not to do anything to change the status quo, it did not outright say he could not hold the five-part vote, which was among the requests made by Guyana. As a result, Caracas is hailing the decision as a victory in its favor.
“The Cooperative Republic of Guyana has expressly asked for the referendum not to be held or that questions one, three and five be modified. In its decision, the court tossed aside this unprecedented and baseless request that involves a matter that is of the exclusive domain of Venezuela,” the office of Venezuela Vice President Delcy Rodriguez said in a press release.
“Nothing in international law allows the court to interfere in Venezuela’s internal affairs, nor prohibit or modify a sovereign act organized within the framework of its participatory political system and based on its Constitution,” the statement further read.
Caracas says it has no plans to cancel Sunday’s vote.
“Nothing will prevent the Venezuelan people from expressing themselves freely on December 3,” Rodriguez’s office said.
In an address on Venezuela’s state-run television, Rodriguez left no doubt on how the regime views the decision from the court, which Venezuela has previously said has no jurisdiction in the border dispute.
“Today is a day of victory for Venezuela. The Venezuelan truth has triumphed,” she said.
But regardless of the limits of the ruling, Guyana and members of other Caribbean governments say the decision is clear: Venezuela cannot circumvent the Court to try and take parts of Guyana by force.
“We welcome this unanimous decision by the ICJ,” Guyanese President Irfaan Ali said in a statement. “As the Court has made clear, Venezuela is prohibited from annexing or trespassing upon Guyanese territory or taking any other actions — regardless of the outcome of its referendum on December 3 — that would alter the status quo in which Guyana administers and controls the Essequibo Region, as an integral part of its sovereign territory.”
Ali said his government believes that justice, not force, should be the arbiter of international disputes, and that Venezuela should abide by the ruling.
In a statement, CARICOM, a 15-member organization of Caribbean nations, said that “Venezuela cannot by a referendum, or otherwise, violate international law and disregard the Order of the world’s highest Court.”
CARICOM said it expects Venezuela to uphold ICJ’s order and insists that Venezuela complies with international law.
“CARICOM demands that the Caribbean be respected as a zone of peace and that nothing should be done to disrupt the tranquility of the region, which is essential to the economic prosperity and social well-being of all countries of CARICOM and Latin America,” the bloc said.
The regional trade bloc, of which Guyana is a member, along with Brazil and other countries in South America, has been increasingly concerned that the latest ploy by Maduro could turn into a shooting war.
“The Bahamas, in line with CARICOM, observes the importance of this decision in maintaining regional stability and upholding international law,” the island-nation’s foreign ministry said. “The Bahamas will continue advocating for peaceful dialogue and respect for the ICJ’s ongoing processes in this matter, reaffirming our commitment to a diplomatic solution.”
In dispute is the oil- and mineral-rich Essequibo region, which Maduro claims belongs to Venezuela despite an 1899 ruling by international arbitrators that established the current borders between the two countries. The border dispute has been before the ICJ for years and in September, Maduro’s National Assembly approved a resolution to put the question about the territory’s ownership before voters.
In the five-part referendum, voters are being asked to grant the Venezuelan leader special powers to invade Guyana and create a new Venezuela state encompassing the region, to be called Guayana Esequiba. The region accounts for 74% of English-speaking Guyana’s current land mass.
Guyana asked the Court to bar Venezuela from proceeding with the planned Sunday referendum and to remove three of the five questions before its voters that encroach upon the legal issues surrounding the region and gives Venezuela de facto or sovereign control over the Essequibo region.
Observers have noted that an ICJ decision on the larger border dispute is still years away. However, in its ruling the Court warned that both Guyana and Venezuela “shall refrain from any action which might aggravate or extend the dispute before the Court or make it more difficult to resolve.”
The ICJ in its decision said that Guyana is the one currently administering and exercising control over the area under dispute and that “the Court, considers that, pending the final decision in the case, Venezuela must refrain from taking any action which would modify that situation.”
“The Court emphasizes that the question of the validity of the 1899 Award and the related question of the definitive settlement of the land boundary dispute between Guyana and Venezuela are matters for the Court to decide at the merits stage,” the decision states.