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Essequibo Referendum to go ahead despite International Court of Justice Order

Venezuela is planning to hold a referendum on Sunday over its rights to the region. It wants to measure the support it has with the public.

A referendum on the Essequibo region in Guyana is still set to go ahead tomorrow despite yesterday’s ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Hoping to prevent physical conflict, the court issued a unanimous order on Friday, instructing Venezuela to refrain from any actions challenging or disrupting Guyana’s control over the Essequibo Region. Essequibo constitutes more than two-thirds of Guyana’s land territory and Venezuela wants to make it a new Venezuelan state.

The Court’s directive comes in response to a Request for Provisional Measures submitted by Guyana, following Venezuela’s scheduled national referendum on December 3, seeking approval for the annexation of the disputed territory.

President of Guyana Dr Ifraan Ali, speaking in a video from COP28 in Dubai, has welcomed the unanimous ruling. “Today’s ruling is legally binding on Venezuela. Both the UN charter and the statute of the court to which Venezuela is a party, require a strict compliance.”

He said it is an opportunity for Venezuela to join Guyana in demonstrating respect for international law and the principles that govern peaceful coexistence.

The ICJ’s Order explicitly states that “the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela shall refrain from taking any action which would modify the situation that currently prevails in the territory in dispute, whereby the Cooperative Republic of Guyana administers and exercises control over that area.” This decision holds until the Court issues its final judgment on the matter of sovereignty over the Essequibo Region.

The move by the ICJ is a reinforcement of the fundamental principles of international law, as outlined in the UN and OAS Charters, emphasizing the duty of every state to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of others. The Court’s Order makes it clear that holding a national referendum does not exempt a state from complying with this obligation.

The ICJ’s Order explicitly prohibits Venezuela from taking any measures that would change the status quo in the disputed territory, regardless of the outcome of the upcoming referendum.

The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) has expressed its expectation that Venezuela will comply with the ICJ’s Order and uphold international law, including the Charter of the United Nations. CARICOM insists that the Venezuela-Guyana controversy is properly before the ICJ, in accordance with the 1966 Geneva Agreement, to which both nations are bound.

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In a statement, CARICOM called on Venezuela to pursue its claims within the framework of the law and the established legal process. Additionally, CARICOM emphasized the importance of maintaining the Caribbean as a Zone of Peace, urging all parties to avoid actions that could disrupt the tranquility of the region, which is crucial for the economic prosperity and social well-being of all CARICOM and Latin American countries.

The Essequibo Region

The dispute between the two nations centers on the lands west of the Essequibo River of Guyana. This stretch of land covers 40 percent of Guyana’s sovereign territory and, according to experts, is rich in gold, bauxite, diamonds, and other natural resources. 

The dispute over control of the Essequibo region was initially settled by international arbitration in 1899, awarding the Guyana Government the region. However, the Venezuelan Government has rejected the final decision granting Guyana the Essequibo region; and, since the 19th century, it has been laying claim to this vast mineral rich area, alleging that the decision was fraudulent and therefore null.

Venezuela has been claiming title to Guyana’s Essequibo region for years. However, there is an increasingly more confrontational stance between the two countries, to the point of raising the possibility of an armed conflict between the two nations. The tension was triggered on May 20, 2015, when the American oil giant ExxonMobil announced that it had found massive offshore oil and gas deposits in the Essequibo region. ExxonMobil discovered “recoverable hydrocarbon resources in its Liza-1 well at the Stabroek Block, with a commercial value in excess of US$1 billion.

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