UN court bars Venezuela from altering Guyana's control over disputed territory
FILE- In this Monday, Feb. 18, 2019, file photo the Peace Palace, which houses the International Court of Justice, or World Court, is seen in The Hague, Netherlands. The United Nations' highest court ruled Friday Dec. 18, 2020, that it will intervene to settle a decades-old border dispute between Latin American neighbors Guyana and Venezuela. The decision by the International Court of Justice means it will now move to judge the merits of the case, which will likely take months or years. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File)
Mike Corder, The Associated Press
Published Friday, December 1, 2023 10:57AM EST
THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) -- The United Nations' top court on Friday ordered Venezuela not to take any action that would alter Guyana's control over a disputed territory, but did not specifically ban it from holding a referendum Sunday on the territory's future.
Guyana had asked the International Court of Justice to order a halt to the planned referendum. The court order did not refer to the vote, but it ruled that Venezuela must "refrain from taking any action which would modify that situation that currently prevails" in the disputed Essequibo region, which makes up some two-thirds of Guyana.
The legally binding ruling remains in place until a case brought by Guyana against Venezuela on the future of the region is considered by the court.
While the order itself did not mention the referendum, the court's president, Joan E. Donoghue, did refer to it as she laid out the reasons for the order.
She said that "Venezuela's expressed readiness to take action with regard to the territory in dispute in these proceedings at any moment following the referendum" showed that there is "a real and imminent risk of irreparable prejudice to Guyana's plausible right before the court gives its final decision."
Venezuela's government, however, interpreted the ruling as a victory saying in a statement released by the Ministry of Communication and Information that the court had "rejected" Guyana's request.
Venezuela does not recognize the International Court of Justice's jurisdiction in the decades-old dispute over the Essequibo region and is expected to press ahead with the referendum.
At urgent hearings in November, lawyers for Guyana said the vote is designed to pave the way for annexation by Venezuela of the Essequibo -- a territory larger than Greece that is rich in oil and minerals. They called on the world court to halt the referendum in its current form.
But Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodriguez defiantly told the court: " Nothing will prevent the referendum scheduled for Dec. 3 from being held."
Venezuela has always considered Essequibo as its own because the region was within its boundaries during the Spanish colonial period, and it has long disputed the border decided by international arbitrators in 1899, when Guyana was still a British colony.
President Nicolas Maduro and his allies are encouraging voters to answer "yes" to all the questions in Sunday's referendum, one of which proposes creating a Venezuelan state in the Essequibo territory and granting Venezuelan citizenship to the area's current and future residents.
After years of fruitless mediation, Guyana went to the world court in 2018, asking judges to rule that the 1899 border decision is valid and binding. Venezuela argues that a 1966 agreement to resolve the dispute effectively nullified the original arbitration.
The court has ruled the case is admissible and that it has jurisdiction but is expected to take years to reach a final decision. In the meantime, Guyana wants to stop the referendum in its current form.
"The collective decision called for here involves nothing less than the annexation of the territory in dispute in this case. This is a textbook example of annexation," Paul Reichler, an American lawyer representing Guyana, told judges at last month's hearings.