International Court of Justice Rules for Guyana in Dispute with Venezuela

December 21, 2020

The International Court of Justice has ruled that it has jurisdiction to decide Guyana’s claim against Venezuela that the boundary between the two States was fixed by an 1899 Arbitral Award, which remains valid and binding on the parties. The ruling, issued on December 18 by a 12-4 majority of the Court’s judges, rejected Venezuela’s jurisdictional objections, allowing the case to proceed to the merits.

Guyana enthusiastically celebrated the ruling. President Irfaan Ali called it “a great moment indeed for Guyana, whose governments and people have been united in looking to international justice to uphold our territorial integrity.”  President Ali added: “The collective work of our lawyers and our own has delivered to us today the victory that paves the way for the full and complete settlement of our border controversy with Venezuela. I have no doubt that our just cause and our just case will bear fruit.”

Guyana’s international legal team was headed by Foley Hoag LLP and lead lawyer Paul Reichler, based in Washington, DC. He was joined by attorneys Christina Beharry and Pierre d’Argent, also of Foley Hoag, and by Professors Philippe Sands (UK), Alain Pellet (France) and Payam Akhavan (Canada). Guyanese members of the legal team included its Agent, Dr. Carl Greenidge, former Foreign Minister, and Sir Shridath Ramphal, also a former Foreign Minister and Attorney General of Guyana, and ex-Commonwealth Secretary General. Ambassadors Audrey Waddell and Elisabeth Harper played prominent roles, as well.

Mr. Reichler, of Foley Hoag, spoke for the legal team in hailing the Court’s decision: “This is a great day for the ICJ, for the rule of law in international relations, and for the peaceful settlement of disputes. The Court has once again distinguished itself as the guardian of the international legal order, which has been under considerable stress in recent years.”

The case concerns the land boundary between Guyana and Venezuela. It was fixed by a distinguished international arbitral tribunal in 1899, when Guyana was a British colony. Venezuela accepted the tribunal’s determination of the boundary for over 60 years, before registering an objection, claiming for the first time that the tribunal was corrupt and its decision invalid. On this basis, Venezuela laid claim to more than two-thirds of Guyana’s territory.

In 1966, the same year that Guyana achieved independence, an agreement was reached at Geneva on a process leading to a definitive settlement. The Geneva Agreement provided that, in the event the parties should be unable to agree on a means of settlement, the Secretary General of the United Nations would be authorized to choose the means. In January 2018, the Secretary General decided that the controversy should be settled by the ICJ. Guyana filed its suit two months later.

Venezuela objected to the Court’s jurisdiction, challenging the authority of the Secretary General to issue a binding decision compelling the parties to accept judicial settlement. It formally refused to participate in proceedings before the Court, but informally submitted extensive written pleadings, which the Court decided to accept and take into account. Under the Court’s long-established rules, non-appearance by a party does not preclude it from hearing or deciding a case, as long as it satisfies itself that its rulings are supported by the applicable law and the evidence.

The Court’s decision on jurisdiction was read aloud by its President, Abdulqawi Yusuf, in a public session in The Hague that was broadcast live on the Internet by the United Nations streaming service. The Court will now proceed to determine the merits of Guyana’s claim that the 1899 Arbitral Award is valid and binding, and constitutes a final and permanent settlement of the boundary with Venezuela. The President of the Court will soon convene a meeting with the parties to agree on the schedule for the remainder of the proceedings.

Foley Hoag has a long and impressive record of representing States in territorial and maritime boundary disputes before the ICJ and other international courts and tribunals. Among numerous other cases, the firm successfully represented Guyana in a maritime boundary case against Suriname in 2007, securing a unanimous arbitral award delimiting the boundary along the line claimed by Guyana. More recently, Foley Hoag helped achieve victories for Bangladesh (against India and Myanmar), Ghana (against Cote d’Ivore), Nicaragua (against Colombia and Costa Rica), and the Philippines (against China).

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