Michael Byrne in Belize

Michael Byrne in Belize

Territorial disputes in Belize - insights from an intern

26 February 2019


Michael Byrne is a Master of Diplomacy student currently undertaking an internship in Belize. Here he updates us on his experiences so far.

Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to receive the inaugural Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy International Internship with the Belizean Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Belmopan, Belize.

This has been my first time experiencing the world of diplomacy in a professional setting, having started the Master of Diplomacy program last year, and it has been one hell of a ride so far.

Belize itself is an amazing country, incredibly diverse in both culture and ecology. My visit has come at a critical time, with the nation and broader region being at important crossroads.

In the coming months, the Belizean people will vote on whether to refer its territorial dispute with Guatemala to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The dispute, wherein Guatemala claims ownership of well over half of the territory under Belize’s control, has undermined Belizean security and territorial integrity since the early 20th Century.

The Guatemalan side has already held a referendum on the subject, and has gained the consent of its people to refer the matter to the ICJ. Should the Belizean people similarly consent, it will give both parties the chance to resolve the matter peacefully through the international judicial system.

Local protest signage

The Ministry has currently been involved in a massive education campaign about the referendum and the issues surrounding it. I have witnessed first-hand the challenges the Ministry faces in explaining complicated international law concepts and ICJ precedents to the general public – but I have been impressed by their ability to do so in simple, straightforward, plain English terms.

The political crisis in Venezuela has also loomed large while I have been here. How Belize chooses to respond to the crisis, and the role it plays in helping to break the impasse, will have important ramifications for its relationships throughout the international community, and will set some important precedents. It has been fascinating to witness some of the Ministry’s deliberations first hand.

On a more general level, it has been interesting to see how the Ministry operates. The organisation itself is very small, there are only around 20 officers working out of my office here in Belmopan. I am told that the Ministry as a whole contains fewer than 100 officers – that’s including the ambassadors, drivers and administrative support staff.

Still, somehow, they manage to get the job done. The staff here are highly skilled and extremely versatile, it’s a great experience to work alongside them, to observe how they operate, and to hear their thoughts on the big questions confronting Belize, the American continent, and the world at large.

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