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BACKGROUND ON THE GUYANA VENEZUELA BORDER DISPUTE 1

THE CONTESTED AREA
The coastal zone off the northeast shoulder of South America is an area where economic development in
hindered by long standing boundary disputes with uncertainty around the respective maritime and land
boundaries between the Guinanas (Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana). Guyana and Suriname both lay
claim to the New River Triangle - a triangle of land between two tributaries of their international boundary
river. With a similar dispute between French Guinana and Suriname. Venezuela and Guyana have also been
engaged in a long-drawn-out dispute over a large portion of territory west of the Essequibo River. The
sovereignty claim to the land territory affects the extent of maritime claims with the maritime boundary being
geographically linked with more than 130 nautical miles of coastline being in dispute. The resource rich area
was first challenged with the discovery of gold in the region in the 1840’s. Now with the potential for oil and
gas royalties, and the unclear demarcation of maritime and land boundaries, the Guyana/Venezuela
controversy can become a landmark case in disputed waters and is of interest not only from an academic
perspective but also is of importance for the political and economic context.

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Guyana’s concessions to oil companies for hydrocarbon exploration in the disputed maritime waters has
recently raised further challenges regarding the sovereign right of Guyana to exercise jurisdiction over the
contested waters which are further complicated by Venezuela not being a party to the United Nations
Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the historical resolution of the dispute.

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A background paper by Sindra Sharma-Khushal for the Ramphal Institute, April, 2016
Hoyle, P. A. (2001). The Guyana-Suriname maritime boundary dispute and its regional context. IBRU
boundary and security bulletin.
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The Essequibo River marked the border between the two countries when they were colonies. When the Dutch
ceded its colonies of Demerara, Berbice, and Essequibo to the British under the Anglo-Dutch treaty of 1814,
the new west border of the newly established British Guiana was marked by the Essequibo River however in
1819 many British settlers remained West of the river in Venezuela’s territory.
In 1949, The British commissioned Robert Schromburgk to delineate interior boundaries between British
Guiana and Venezuela. The ensuing Schromburgk Line would mark an additional 30,000 square miles for
British Guiana, and went well beyond the occupation by the Dutch. The British claim was to the drainage basin
of the Cuyuni river and up to and within a few miles of the Orinoco and Caroni rivers. The Venezuelan claim
was and remains the territory west of the Essequibo river.
Venezuela requested America to intervene in 1895 and an International Arbitration Tribunal was formed. In
1899 the Arbitral Award established the borders between Eastern Venezuela and Western British Guiana
largely in favour of British Guiana, accepting a slightly modified Schromburk line which awarded most of the
contested territory including the gold mines to British Guinana and control of the mouth of the Orinoco River
to Venezuela. The Award was accepted by Venezuela as a ‘full, perfect and final’ settlement to the dispute.
The dispute remained resolved until the 1960’s when Venezuela reasserted its claim to Guyana’s present
territory west of the Essequibo river (which forms about two-thirds of Guyana).

THE REASSERTED CLAIM
<I did not write about the politically sensitive element of the reasserted claim involving the approaching
independence of British Guiana and the formation of a pro-American coalition government, but can do so>
In 1964, the Venezuelan Government, in an effort to nullify the 1899 Arbitral Award, commissioned a report
which reasserted their boundary claim and undermined the Award as fraudulent. Venezuela, it argued, was
left aside from the arbitral tribunal, and the ensuing decision was not based on law and right. It argued that
the maps submitted to the colonial office had been adulterated, and critically, that the tribunal failed to give a
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reasoned decision which nullified the subsequent verdict under international law .
In 1966 the United Nations stepped in with the Agreement to resolve the controversy over the frontier
between Venezuela and British Guiana (known as the Geneva Agreement). The Geneva Agreement assigned a
Mixed Commission to seek a satisfactory solution for the settlement of the border controversy and outlined
procedures in the case an agreement did not ensue. The Mixed Commission failed to arrive at a solution and in
1990 the United Nations Good Officer process commenced to mediate and settle the dispute. This process is
ongoing.
Guyana currently exercises sovereignty and control over the territory in dispute. However, the Uti Possidetis
Juris is in support of Venezuela. This principle in international law states that newly formed sovereign states
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maintain the same borders they had before independence .
The ongoing controversy has escalated in recent years with oil prospecting being in the center of tensions.
Most recently, in 2015, Exxon Mobil commenced oil prospecting in the Essequibo waters with the 10 year
project worth US$40 billion.

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Ishmael, O. (2013). The trail of diplomacy. Xlibris Corporation.
Elias-Roberts, A (2014). Legal Reflections on the Guyana-Venezuela Maritime Issue. Caribbean Journal of
International Relations & Diplomacy. 2(1): 13-36
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