What's In Blue

Private Meeting on the Territorial Dispute between Guyana and Venezuela

This afternoon (9 April), the Security Council will convene for a private meeting under the “Threats to international peace and security” agenda item to discuss recent developments regarding a territorial dispute between Guyana and Venezuela over the Essequibo region in Guyana. Assistant Secretary-General for Europe, Central Asia and the Americas Miroslav Jenča will brief. Venezuela is expected to participate in the meeting under rule 37 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure. Council member Guyana requested the meeting in a 5 April letter from Guyanese President Irfaan Ali to the Council (S/2024/295). 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”.


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 has laid claim to the Essequibo region since 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. It has also challenged the validity of the 1899 Paris Arbitral Award through which the border between Venezuela and British Guiana was decided.

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 believed that the court lacked 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 had 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”. An ICJ ruling regarding Guyana’s 2018 application is reportedly not expected before next year.

Council members last discussed the dispute over the Essequibo region in closed consultations on 8 December 2023, also at Guyana’s request. The meeting was prompted by Venezuela’s referendum on 3 December 2023 that asked 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. Venezuelan authorities said that all questions passed with more than 95 percent approval. The referendum was carried out despite the ICJ’s provisional measures of 1 December 2023 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. (For more background and information, see our 8 December 2023 What’s in Blue story.)

On 14 December 2023, Ali and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro held a meeting in Argyle, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, to discuss ways to address tensions arising from the territorial dispute. The meeting was facilitated by Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and attended by regional interlocutors—including representatives of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC)—and UN officials who participated as observers, including Jenča. At the conclusion of the meeting, Guyana and Venezuela agreed to the “Declaration of Argyle for Dialogue and Peace between Guyana and Venezuela”.

In the declaration, the sides pledged to not threaten or use force against one another and committed to continue dialogue on any matters of mutual importance of both countries. They also committed to “the pursuance of good neighborliness, peaceful coexistence, and the unity of Latin America and the Caribbean”. The declaration also stipulated the establishment of a joint commission comprised of the foreign ministers of Guyana and Venezuela and technical personnel from both countries to “address matters as mutually agreed”. It requested that the commission submit a report within three months, and called on the sides to meet in Brazil to discuss the report and any other matter relating to the territorial dispute. The first meeting of the joint commission was held on 25 January in Brazil. During the meeting, the sides reportedly reiterated their opposing positions regarding the disputed territory, but committed to continue holding dialogue on the matter.

Today’s Meeting

In the letter requesting today’s meeting, Ali cited the “Organic Law for the Defense of Guayana Esequiba”, which Maduro signed on 3 April. He warned that this action “cements Venezuela’s intent to annex more than two-thirds of Guyana’s sovereign territory and make it part of Venezuela”. Maduro described the law as the implementation of the results of the 3 December 2023 referendum. He added that the law “establishes the creation of state number 24, the state of Guayana Esequiba within the political and territorial organization of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela”. The law also reiterated Venezuela’s rejection of the validity of the 1899 Paris Arbitral Award and the ICJ’s jurisdiction on the matter.

In his 5 April letter, Ali said that the law violates the ICJ’s 1 December 2023 provisional measures and expressed concern that given Caracas’ disregard of this order, “Venezuela’s next move would be to implement its plan for the seizure of our sovereign territory”. He added that such an act would be a breach of the fundamental principles of international law enshrined in the UN Charter and would contradict the letter and spirit of the Argyle Declaration. The letter also rejects recent claims made by Maduro that the US has installed bases of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Essequibo, calling it a “dangerous narrative”. Guyana may reiterate key messages from the letter at today’s meeting.

Today, several Council members are expected to voice concern about the tensions between Guyana and Venezuela and call on the sides to resolve their differences through peaceful means. In this regard, they are likely to express support for regional dialogue efforts and for the implementation of the Argyle Declaration.

It seems that at the 8 December 2023 consultations, several members—including the US and European members—denounced Venezuela’s actions as provocative, emphasised the need to respect Guyana’s sovereignty, and said that the ICJ remains the forum where the territorial dispute over the Essequibo region should be resolved. These members are likely to reiterate similar messages at today’s meeting and call on Venezuela to cease actions that could escalate the situation. Other members, such as China and Russia, apparently did not directly reference Venezuela’s role in the situation during the 8 December 2023 consultations. It seems that these members argued that there was not enough information on the dispute, and as such, said that the Council should not engage or adopt products on the matter. Council members were unable to agree on press elements that were proposed during that meeting.

It seems that one or more Council members may propose a draft press statement following today’s meeting.

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