Memorandum by Mr. Gerald A. Drew of the Division of the American Republics

The present phase of the Belize dispute may be said to have originated in June 1939 when this Government transmitted identic memoranda to the British Ambassador in Washington and to the Guatemalan Foreign Office13 urging the desirability of reaching a settlement of the controversy.

The Guatemalan Government considered raising the Belize question at the Panama Conference in September 1939,14 but desisted following conversations on the subject with representatives of this Government and upon the receipt of a note from the British Legation in Guatemala that the British Government proposed to resume negotiations as soon as permitted by war-time conditions. Its action at the Panama Conference was confined to making a reservation with regard to its rights in the Belize matter following a similar reservation made by the Argentine delegation on the Falkland Island question.

Following conversations in the Department, the British Ambassador informed us in November that his Government was prepared to [Page 427] accept arbitration by an ad hoc tribunal if the President of the United States would agree to designate an American citizen to act as umpire. The President agreed to do this. When this Government learned that the terms of reference to the proposed arbitral tribunal were greatly restricted in their scope, further conversations were held with the British Ambassador in an effort to have them broadened. While assurances were given that the arbitral tribunal would be empowered to effect a settlement of all the issues involved in the event that it was found that the British Government had failed to comply with its obligations under the 1859 Treaty which established the boundaries of British Honduras, the terms of reference as actually submitted to the British Government actually excluded the basic title to British Honduras from the arbitration.

The Guatemalan Government accepted the British offer to refer the dispute to arbitration by a mixed tribunal with an American citizen as umpire, but renewed its claim to sovereignty over the disputed territory on the grounds of noncompliance by Great Britain with the 1859 Treaty. There has been no further exchange of correspondence between the two Governments since the Guatemalan reply to the British offer of arbitration.

In a conversation with Mr. Berle15 on February 1416 on the subject of the Belize dispute, the British Ambassador referred to the Olney precedent in which it had been “agreed that treaties which had actually been in force for more than fifty years ought not to be questioned”.

The precedent which the British Ambassador has in mind is presumably the agreement of 1897 for the arbitration of the boundary dispute between Great Britain and Venezuela.17 This Government, acting as a friend of the Venezuelan Government, negotiated with Great Britain the draft of a treaty subsequently concluded between the parties in which they agreed to submit the dispute to arbitration. Rule A of the Arbitral Agreement provides:

“Adverse holding or prescription during the period of fifty years shall make a good title. The arbitrators may deem exclusive political control of a district, as well as actual settlement thereof, sufficient to constitute adverse holding or to make title by prescription.”

It does not appear that this clause of the Arbitral Agreement would have any direct bearing on the question of validity of the treaty at issue in the Belize dispute. It might, however, be appealed to by the [Page 428] British to support their position that the basic title to the territory of British Honduras should not be submitted to arbitration.

In the same conversation the Ambassador expressed the hope that we would urge the Guatemalan Government to accept the British position that the terms of reference of the arbitration should not include the validity of the 1859 Treaty. It is not believed that we should comply with this request. While this Government should do what it can to keep the negotiations alive, it is not believed that it could appropriately assume the responsibility for carrying the burden of the negotiations which should rest on the disputant parties. It is felt that now that agreement has been reached on the method of arbitration, the parties should endeavor by a process of friendly negotiation to reach an agreement on what is to be arbitrated.

  1. See instruction No. 291, June 8, 1939, to the Minister in Guatemala, and footnote 9, Foreign Relations, 1939, vol. v, p. 177.
  2. See Report of the Delegate of the United States of America to the Meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the American Republics, Held at Panama September 23–October 3, 1939, pp. 65–66.
  3. Adolf A. Berle, Jr., Assistant Secretary of State.
  4. Memorandum of conversation not printed.
  5. See John Bassett Moore, A Digest of International Law, vol. i (Washington, Government Printing Office, 1906), pp. 296–297; Foreign Relations, 1896, p. 254; British and Foreign State Papers, vol. xxcix, pp. 57–64.