1899 Arbitral Award upholds principles of peace, justice

The longstanding border controversy between Guyana and Venezuela emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Venezuela was at the time backed by the United States, in accordance with the ‘Monroe Doctrine,’ which asserted that if any European power attempted to interfere with any country in the Americas, this interference would be seen as a hostile act against the United States.

In 1897, British Guiana and Venezuela signed and ratified the Treaty of Washington, which aimed to offer a final settlement of the boundary through binding arbitration.

The terms of the treaty included a solemn commitment ‘to consider the results of the proceedings of the Tribunal of Arbitration as a full, perfect and final settlement of all the questions referred to the Arbitrators.’

The tribunal included the heads of the judiciary of the United States and Great Britain among other esteemed and distinguished academic and judicial figures.

For almost three months, the tribunal engaged in extensive debate and discussion surrounding the respective territorial claims of British Guiana and Venezuela, with over 200 hours of oral hearings and thousands of pages of written submissions.

On October 3, 1899, the Arbitral Tribunal delivered its award fixing the boundary between the two countries. For almost sixty years after the Award, Venezuela regarded it as a ‘full, perfect and final settlement,’ even declaring it a victory. It was widely celebrated, affirmed, and recognised as such.

According to an Aide Mémoire on the controversy, published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, between 1900 and 1905, Venezuela participated in a joint demarcation of the boundary and refused to allow even the most miniscule modifications of the boundary line established in the award.

Venezuela further ratified and incorporated the boundary into official legislation and maps, to affirm its validity.

However, in 1944, Venezuela invoked a secret memorandum, purportedly written in 1944 by a junior member of Venezuela’s legal team at the 1899 arbitration, Severo Mallet-Provost, with alleged instructions that it must be published posthumously.

The memorandum claimed that the award was the product of a deal between the two British arbitrators and the President of the Tribunal. These claims are yet to be proven.

Importantly, Venezuela sought to reject the 1899 Arbitral Award in the leadup to British Guiana’s independence, in the early 1960s, after more than half a century of recognition, affirmation, and reliance.

Since then, Venezuela has continued to make aggressive and far-reaching claims to significant portions of Guyana’s territory.

The Government of Guyana has maintained its position that the country will not succumb to Venezuela’s imperialist claims to more than two-thirds of its territory.

Rather, the government is confident that democracy and the rule of law will prevail, ensuring that the boundaries established over a century ago remain intact.

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