Belizeans vote to ask U.N. court to settle Guatemala border dispute

BELIZE CITY (Reuters) - Belizeans have voted to ask the United Nations world court to decide Guatemala’s claim that it is the rightful owner of half of Belize’s territory, setting the scene for a resolution to a dispute that has rumbled on for centuries.

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In a referendum held on Wednesday, 55.4 percent of voters opted to send the matter to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, according to results published by Belize’s elections and boundaries department on Thursday.

The remaining 44.6 percent of voters in the former British colony in Central America opposed the motion to ask the court.

Guatemalans in April 2018 voted by an overwhelming majority to have the ICJ rule on the dispute, which stretches back to the dawn of the colonial era in the Americas.

In a statement, Guatemala’s government applauded the result and said it would immediately contact the foreign ministry of Belize to agree the next steps in the process.

“The final resolution of the dispute will broaden and deepen the good relations that exist between Guatemala and Belize,” the Guatemalan foreign ministry said.

Marta Larra, a spokeswoman for the ministry, estimated it could be around four years before a final court decision.

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“The most important thing for Guatemala is defining the border,” said Larra.

Officials from the U.S. State Department, the European Union and the Organization of American States (OAS) also welcomed the outcome of the referendum.

Guatemala recognized the independence of Belize at the beginning of the 1990s. But it never accepted the borders and continues to claim about 11,000 square km (4,250 square miles) of Belize, about half of its territory.

In December 2008, both countries signed a deal that its inhabitants could vote to decide whether the territorial claim, which includes various islands, should be decided by the ICJ.

Belize Prime Minister Dean Barrow is betting the court will settle the issue once and for all by confirming the borders.

In Belize City, Barrow told a news conference he wanted to make sure there were “no slip-ups” in preparing Belize’s case.

An English-speaking country of around 375,000 people, Belize became independent in 1981.

Inhabited by Maya before the arrival of Europeans, the territory was claimed by Spain and settled by British buccaneers during the 17th century. Belize later became a British possession surrounded by countries that Spain had colonized.

Reporting by Jose Sanchez; additional reporting by Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City; editing by Dave Graham, Jonathan Oatis and Rosalba O’Brien