Venezuela: ICJ Ruling Offers Setback in Essequibo Dispute

The Maduro government sustains that the 1966 Geneva Agreement is the only binding instrument to resolve the territorial controversy.


Caracas, April 8, 2023 ( – The International Court of Justice (ICJ) dismissed Venezuela’s preliminary objections in a case brought forward by Guyana concerning the sovereignty over the Essequibo Strip.

The two-neighboring South American countries have an unresolved border dispute going back to colonial times. In 2018, Guyana asked the Hague-based court to confirm the validity of a border drawn by an 1899 Paris tribunal.

On Thursday, ICJ Chief Justice Joan Donoghue announced that, by a majority of 14 to 1, the court had decided to dismiss Venezuela’s objection that the United Kingdom, as ruler of what was British Guiana in 1899, should also take part in the case.

The court had previously ruled against Caracas in determining that it has jurisdiction to hear arguments on the dispute. Venezuela will now have to present its “Counter-Memorial” to back its position. A hearing schedule is not presently known.

The Nicolás Maduro government has consistently rejected the ICJ’s authority to rule on the matter. Venezuela rejects the 1899 borders as fraudulent since the five-jurist tribunal denied the participation of Venezuelan negotiators.

Caracas argues that the sparsely populated 160,000 square-kilometer strip belonged to Spain in colonial times and was inherited by the independent republic in the early 1800s. In contrast, Guyana claims that Britain colonized the area following a treaty with the Netherlands in 1814.

However, the borders were never defined and Venezuela includes the Essequibo Strip in its maps as a “reclamation zone.” The Venezuelan government points to the 1966 Geneva Agreement, where the two countries committed to finding a negotiated solution, as overruling the 1899 award and as the only valid instrument to settle the dispute.

Following the latest ruling, Venezuela published a statement “taking note” of the decision and stating that the country will “adopt all measures at its disposal to defend its legitimate rights and its territorial integrity.”

“The United Kingdom forged maps and set up a fraudulent arbitration against Venezuela,” the text read. “Today’s decision validates that […] the illicit conduct of the United Kingdom can be reviewed.”

The country’s sovereignty over the Essequibo Strip has historically been a near-unanimous position across the political spectrum.

On Thursday, the “Unitary Platform,” a US-backed coalition grouping some of the largest opposition parties, called for national unity over the issue.

“The Essequibo’s strategic value should be the key to fight for our nation’s rights,” read a Unitary Platform communique that went on to urge the Maduro government to convene a “group of high-level experts” to assist with the legal case. During the 2021 negotiations held in Mexico City, one of the joint government-opposition agreements concerned the sovereignty claim over the Essequibo Strip.

For his part, Guyanese President Irfaan Ali welcomed the ICJ decision and stated that his country “remains confident” that the court will uphold its sovereignty over the territory.

In a public address, Ali reiterated Guyana’s “full commitment to the peaceful resolution of the dispute in accordance with international law.” He claimed that the inability to achieve a UN-mediated solution for more than 20 years is what drove the former British colony to seek a binding resolution from the ICJ.

The long-standing, unresolved territorial dispute flared up in recent years after Georgetown moved forward with offshore energy projects in the Strip’s territorial waters. With Washington throwing its weight behind the 1899 accords, Exxon Mobil and partners have discovered five major oil fields totaling more than 11 billion barrels since 2015. The corporation is expected to drill over 60 wells in the coming years to add to the 30 currently in operation.

Caracas has accused its eastern neighbor of violating the 1966 agreement and having its stance on the diplomatic standoff subjected to and financed by corporate interests.