Belizeans voting in national referendum

Belizeans are voting in a referendum on Wednesday on whether or not to take its decades old border dispute with Guatemala to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) with both the government and the opposition urging supporters to vote for different reasons.

The official statement announcing the referendum, said that the question to the electors will be “Do you agree that any legal claim of Guatemala against Belize relating to land and insular territories and to any maritime areas pertaining to these territories should be submitted to the International Court of Justice for final settlement and that it determine finally the boundaries of the respective territories and areas of the Parties?”

The Elections and Boundaries Department said that electors wishing to cast their ballots in respect of the Belize Territorial Dispute Referendum can do so with or without their voter’s identification card.

It said also that employers are required to grant employees “reasonable time off for voting”.

The law states that every employer shall, on polling day, allow every voter in his employ a reasonable time during the prescribed period for voting, and no employer shall make any deduction from the pay or other remuneration of any such voter or impose upon or exact from him any penalty by reason of his absence during such period.

The Department also reminded the employers that there is a penalty if they directly or indirectly refuse to grant time. The fine is up to BDZ$2,000 (One BDZ dollar=US$0.49 cents) or imprisonment for up to one year.

Prime Minister Dean Barrow and Opposition Leader John Briceno have been urging voters to support their causes with the government urging a “yes” vote and the opposition, a “no” vote.

In a last minute appeal to voters, Prime Minister Barrow sad that the ICJ referendum is a national issue which should never divide Belizeans along party lines.

“At a time like this, we must keep our eyes on the prize, a Belize free from Guatemala’s claim.  Regardless of our political differences, the fact remains that on eight May, we are being called upon to vote yes or no and our nation calls on us to vote not by party but for country.”

Barrow recalled that four Belizeans prime ministers, including the “Father of the Nation, George Price, have supported going to the ICJ to end Guatemala’s claim.

“All international lawyers who have advised both Belize and also Guatemala a great deal that Belize has good title to all its territory.  They confirm that Guatemala’s claim is without merit and that it would be regarded as such by the ICJ.”

Prime Minister Barrow said that the country has already been given the assurance by a former ICJ president, Judge Schwoebel that once the matter is before the court the prospects are high for Belize to successfully obtain binding provisional measures to direct Guatemala to cease and desist from its actions on the Sarstoon, to respect the terms of the 1859 Treat.

“This means getting the UN Security Council to make Guatemala leave Belize alone.  Those who say no to the ICJ offer no viable alternative.  They say Belize stands to lose territory, but cannot offer any credible evidence to support this,” Barrow said.

But Briceno, whose opposition People’s United Party (PUP), has no backed the referendum, said when Belizeans vote on Wednesday they would be making “one of the most important decisions of our lifetime.  “As we have said, the PUP believes that this is such an important issue that every Belizean should have been provided with all the facts so that they can make an informed decision.  The government had a responsibility to ensure that Belizeans were given all the information in such a manner that it was unbiased, clear and understandable.  They failed to do that.”

Briceeno said that the PUP had called for a balanced education campaign, and follow the proper legal procedures to ensure the smooth execution of the referendum.

He said the government failed to do so and also “failed to bring Belizeans together on this important national issue.

“Instead of working with others, they decided to act in their usual fashion, like a bully, forging ahead no matter what.  The government squandered the goodwill of everyone, including the social partners and civil society and yes, we in the PUP.

“The failure of this process is solely the responsibility of the prime minister and the foreign minister.  Dean Barrow, for not being able to work across party lines to build a national consensus on this issue, and Sedi Elrington for allowing Guatemala to strong arm the process,” Briceno said in a statement.

He said there were still “thousands of Belizeans being kept off the voters register” and asked is it right that legitimate Belizeans who want to vote are disallowed due to no fault of their own?

“ Even now, the legal issues in respect of the validity of this referendum are still in question and as such, are still before the courts.  We cannot forget the track record of this….administration that has lost case after case in every international court and even in the Supreme Court of Belize,” he said.

The referendum is being observed by teams from the Commonwealth and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) as well as other organisations.

The Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Belize Network of NGO’s announced they are providing polling and counting monitors countrywide.

They said a total of 72 monitors will be deployed to the different centres around the country and pledged that “our team of monitors will do its best to ensure a smooth voting process on this day of days”.

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