Sir Shridath Ramphal pens letter on ‘full, perfect and final settlement’ of border controversy between Guyana and Venezuela

On the 3 October 1899, 124 years ago, on an autumn morning in Paris, some of the world’s most distinguished jurists listened to a description of the boundary between British Guiana and Venezuela. It was the Award of the Arbitral Tribunal set up under the Treaty of Washington to find a ‘full, perfect and final settlement’ of the dispute over the boundary between British Guiana and Venezuela.

It was a grand occasion. The Tribunal of Five Arbitrators included the most senior jurists of the common law world and its chairman was the leading international lawyer of the time. The choice of the Tribunal was that of the Parties – and the Award of the Tribunal was unanimous. As the American President judged at the time – the result was acceptable to both Venezuela and Britain. The line of the boundary was surveyed, marked on the ground, and formally mapped by British and Venezuelan Commissioners in 1905.

In 1911, as Venezuela celebrated its Centenary of Independence, its Minister of Internal Relations, F. Alientaro did so by authenticating that 1905 Map based on the 3rd October,1899 Paris Award. Twenty (20) years later, Venezuela joined Brazil and British Guiana in erecting on the Summit of Mt. Roraima, a Monument marking where the boundaries of the three countries met (and where eastern Venezuela ended)- the tri-junction point. All went back to 3 October 1899 in Paris. Venezuela was since to deface the Monument in a vain attempt to change the boundary. But, of course, the geographical points are eternal.

As the years went by so grew Venezuelan greed and imperial ambition and the Award of 3 October 1899 became its target. Relying on the memoirs of a deceased member of its legal team in Paris, it impugned the Award as being invalid, and on the first sign of Guyana’s movement to Independence in 1962, it initiated a vigorous boundary controversy of invalidity cast in a ‘cold war’ mould.

With Independence of the whole state threatened came the Geneva Agreement of 1966 whose aim was and is the determination of the dispute – from Guyana’s point of view, the validity of the Arbitral of Award of Paris: the upholding of the boundary determination of 3 October 1899.

Under the Geneva Agreement and the decision of the UN Secretary General under it, the matter is now before the International Court of Justice which has twice affirmed its jurisdiction to bring it to final solution – in rejection of Venezuela’s efforts to avoid a judicial determination. Having failed to persuade the Court to step aside, it now vigorously seeks to set it aside itself in favour of ‘peaceful discussions’ under the pretext of a friendlier process. In doing so it ignores the fact – or, perhaps, remembers – that it has indulged that ‘friendlier’ process of discussion for over 50 years under the Geneva Agreement since Guyana’s Independence.

3rd October 1899 heard as the first words of the Arbitral Tribunal defining the boundary between British Guiana and Venezuela: “Starting from Punta Playa”. That was so in Paris 124 years ago. It is still so in Guyana’s Essequibo Region.

3rd October just happens to be my birthday. What better way of celebrating it than a toast to that moment of validity in Paris.

Shridath Ramphal

October 3, 2023