What's In Blue

Posted Fri 8 Dec 2023

Closed Consultations on the Territorial Dispute between Guyana and Venezuela

This afternoon (8 December), following the vote on the draft resolution on the situation in Gaza, Security Council members will convene for closed consultations to discuss recent developments regarding a territorial dispute between Guyana and Venezuela over the Essequibo region in Guyana. Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo is expected to brief. Ecuador, December’s Council President, scheduled the meeting after Guyana, an incoming Security Council member that will begin its 2024-2025 Council term on 1 January 2024, requested the meeting in a 6 December letter to the Council (S/2023/961). The letter cites Article 35 (1) of the UN Charter, which states that any UN member state “may bring any dispute, or any situation referred to in Article 34 [that is, one that may lead to international friction or give rise to a dispute] to the attention of the Security Council or of the General Assembly”.

Consultations are a closed, informal meeting format that does not allow for rule 37 participation of non-Council member states whose interests are directly affected. In line with established practice, starting from October, incoming members of the Council have been allowed to observe Council proceedings in closed-door sessions to prepare for their upcoming terms. Therefore, Guyana will be able to observe today’s meeting, while Venezuela will not be able to participate.


The dispute over the Essequibo region—an approximately 160,000 square km stretch of densely forested land that constitutes two-thirds of Guyana’s territory and is home to roughly 125,000 of its 800,000 citizens—stretches back to the 19th century, when Guyana was under colonial rule. Venezuela laid claim to the Essequibo region as far back as 1841, when it argued that the British Empire had encroached on Venezuelan territory in its acquisition of the territory of then-British Guiana from the Netherlands. The border between Venezuela and British Guiana was decided through the 1899 Paris Arbitral Award, which was given by an international Tribunal of Arbitration, and the region has since been administered by the British and then by Guyana once it gained independence in 1966. On various occasions since 1962, Venezuela has challenged the validity of the 1899 Paris Arbitral Award.

Venezuela became more insistent in its claims over the disputed region in 2015, when oil was discovered off Essequibo’s coast. In March 2018, Guyana filed an application at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), instituting proceedings against Venezuela regarding the disputed territory. Soon after, in June 2018, Venezuela informed the ICJ that it believes that the court lacks jurisdiction to hear the case and announced its decision not to take part in the proceedings. In a judgement delivered in December 2020, the ICJ decided that it has jurisdiction to “entertain Guyana’s claims concerning the validity of the 1899 Award about the frontier between British Guiana and Venezuela and the related question of the definitive settlement of the dispute regarding the land boundary between the territories of the Parties”.

The past months have witnessed renewed tensions over the Essequibo region. On 20 October, the Venezuelan government announced that it would hold on 3 December a “consultative referendum” that would ask Venezuelan voters five questions about issues relating to the Essequibo region, including whether they support incorporating the territory into Venezuela, granting Venezuelan citizenship to current and future residents, and rejecting the ICJ’s jurisdiction over the dispute. Guyana subsequently requested the ICJ to order provisional measures, seeking to prevent Venezuela from proceeding with the referendum and taking steps that are “intended to prepare or allow the exercise of sovereignty or de facto control over any territory that was awarded to British Guiana in the 1899 Arbitral Award”.

On 1 December, the ICJ indicated its provisional measures, calling on Venezuela to refrain from “taking any action which would modify the situation that currently prevails in the territory in dispute, whereby the Co-operative Republic of Guyana administers and exercises control over that area”, and calling on both parties to avoid any action that might aggravate or extend the dispute. The measures did not explicitly call on Venezuela not to conduct the referendum, however. The referendum was held on 3 December, with Venezuelan authorities saying that all questions passed with more than 95 percent approval. On 5 December, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro asked the state oil company to issue extraction licenses for Venezuelan companies to explore for fossil fuels and minerals in the Essequibo region and proposed that the National Assembly pass a bill to make the area part of Venezuela.

Venezuela’s recent moves have sparked concerns in Guyana, which reportedly has its troops on high alert. Speaking to reporters yesterday (7 December), Guyanese President Irfaan Ali said that his country has “initiated a number of precautionary measures to ensure the peace and stability of this region”, adding that “[s]hould Venezuela proceed to act in this reckless and adventurous manner, the region will have to respond”. He has also called on the Security Council to “issue a very strong statement to Venezuela in relation to Venezuela breaching the order of the ICJ– an order that can be enforceable”. In its 6 December letter to the Council, Guyana said that under Article 94(1) of the UN Charter, Venezuela is obligated to comply with the ICJ’s decisions. It added that under Article 94(2), “if any party to a case fails to perform the obligations incumbent on it, the other party (in this case Guyana) may have recourse to the Security Council, which may, if it deems necessary, make recommendations or decide on measures to be taken to give effect to the judgment”.

Regional countries and other international interlocutors have also voiced concerns about the potential for escalation in the region, while urging calm. Brazil, which borders the Essequibo region, has reportedly said that it is moving more soldiers to the border city of Boa Vista as part of efforts to “guarantee the inviolability of the territory”. Speaking yesterday at a conference of the Mercosur regional bloc—comprising Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay—Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said that Latin America does not need war or conflict. He called on the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (Celac) to mediate between the two countries, while saying that Brazil is available to host meetings between Venezuela and Guyana. In a statement issued by the Mercosur regional bloc, together with Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, the states emphasised that Latin America should be a territory of peace and that unilateral actions should be avoided, and urged both parties to commit to dialogue and search for a peaceful solution to the dispute.

Yesterday, the US conducted joint flight operations with the Guyanese military, an act that Venezuela denounced as a provocation. On the same day, US National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby emphasised in a press briefing the US’ “unwavering support for Guyana’s sovereignty”.

Today’s Meeting

At today’s meeting, DiCarlo may echo the messages contained in a 6 December statement on the situation between Venezuela and Guyana by Secretary-General António Guterres, conveyed by his spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric. In the statement, the Secretary-General emphasised that he strongly supports the use of solely peaceful means to settle international disputes. He further recalled that, pursuant to the UN Charter and the Statute of the ICJ, the court’s decisions are binding, and added that he trusts that both states will comply with the court’s 1 December order indicating provisional measures on the case.

Council members are also likely to urge a peaceful resolution to the territorial dispute and express concern about its possible ramifications on the region. Many Council members are expected to urge respect for multilateralism and adherence to international law, and express support for the ICJ. While some members—including the US and European members—are likely to regret Venezuela’s actions, others are not expected to specifically denounce Venezuela’s role in the situation.

It seems that Council members may consider issuing press elements following today’s meeting.

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