Venezuela VP Visits ICJ in The Hague to Defend Essequibo Referendum

Caracas maintains that since the referral of the dispute to the World Court, Georgetown has abandoned direct diplomacy in favor of unilateral actions.
Speaking before the ICJ, Vice-President Delcy Rodríguez called Guyana’s effort to suspend a referendum in Venezuela an “unprecedented” request. (@Yvangil / X)

Mexico City, Mexico, November 14, 2023 ( – Venezuelan Vice-President Delcy Rodríguez traveled Monday to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, Netherlands as part of efforts to defend her country’s claim to the Essequibo Strip amidst a longstanding territorial dispute. 

The World Court recently summoned Guyana and Venezuela for hearings this week after the former asked the court to suspend a referendum in Venezuela.

“No one is going to stop the expression of our people in the consultative referendum of this [December 3rd] to defend our Guyana Essequiba,” said Rodríguez in a video shared to social media.

Calling the planned referendum an “existential threat”, Guyana is seeking urgent orders from the ICJ to halt the vote in its current form. Georgetown views the referendum as a step toward the “annexation” of the disputed territory by Venezuela. 

In a series of five questions, the December referendum will ask Venezuelans whether they reject the 1899 arbitration, approve of the 1966 agreement as the only binding mechanism to resolve the issue, agree with not recognizing the ICJ’s jurisdiction and oppose Guyana’s unilateral appropriation of the Essequibo’s territorial waters. 

A final question asks voters if they agree with establishing a new state, called Guayana Esequiba, in the disputed strip, while granting Venezuelan citizenship to its inhabitants.

Guyana is asking the ICJ, also called the World Court and charged with settling disputes between states, to suspend three of the five questions.

Venezuela does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction in this particular case, arguing that the 1966 Geneva Agreement is the only binding instrument to resolve the territorial controversy. Caracas furthermore views the effort to suspend the referendum as an infringement of its sovereignty and an affront to its constitution.

Guyana’s claim over the region is based on an arbitration award from 1899 that granted the territory to the United Kingdom, the country’s former colonial power. Venezuela has said the decision is illegitimate due to the absence of Venezuelan negotiators and defends the 1966 United Nations-brokered Geneva Agreement which called for a negotiated solution between the two countries following Guyana’s independence that same year.

The ICJ has ruled against Caracas, determining that it has jurisdiction to hear arguments on the dispute.

In a letter to United Nations (UN) Secretary-General, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro called António Guterres to rectify the “mistakes” he has committed concerning the handling of the Essequibo territorial controversy and instead help de-escalate the simmering conflict. Caracas had earlier criticized statements by Guterres that it viewed as an effort by the UN secretary-general to wash his hands of the issue.

Caracas maintains that since the 2018 referral of the dispute to the World Court, Georgetown has abandoned direct diplomacy in favor of unilateral actions that “threaten peace and stability” in the region.

The Venezuelan government recently sounded alarm bells over threats of a US military presence in the Essequibo strip, accusing the Guyanese government in a statement of carrying out military operations alongside the US Southern Command to “protect US energy corporations” that are exploiting resources in the disputed area’s territorial waters. Guyana denied the claim.

The two neighboring South American countries’ rival claims over the Essequibo Strip date back to the 19th century but flared up in 2015 after Georgetown opened up a bidding process for oil exploration in the region’s territorial waters. Since then, oil giant Exxon Mobil and other companies have been involved in major drilling projects in the area.

In 2018, Georgetown requested the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to confirm the validity of the border drawn by the 1899 Paris tribunal.

The two-day hearing at The Hague is expected to conclude Wednesday with a decision within weeks. An ultimate ruling by the World Court concerning the territorial dispute is not expected for years.

Meanwhile, President Maduro has launched a national campaign to promote the referendum. Despite long-standing tensions between the government and the opposition, the country’s sovereignty over the Essequibo Strip has historically been a near-unanimous position across the political spectrum.

Edited by Ricardo Vaz in Caracas.