The International Court of Justice (ICJ) on Friday ordered Venezuela to refrain from interfering with the disputed Essequibo region, which is administered by Guyana. However, the court stopped short of explicitly directing Venezuela to halt its planned consultative referendum on whether the region should become a Venezuelan state. The order came after Guyana requested provisional measures to temporarily preempt the referendum and Venezuelan interference in the area. The disputed region was awarded to Guyana in 1899 following international arbitration.
The ICJ’s order states that “Pending a final decision in the case, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela shall 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 an exercises control over that area.” It also provides that “both Parties shall refrain from any action which might aggravate or extend the dispute before the Court or make it more difficult to resolve”
On October 31, Guyana asked the court to indicate provisional measures under Article 41 of the ICJ statute. Guyana’s request says that “on the 23 October 2023, the Government of Venezuela, through its National Electoral Council, published a list of five questions that it plans to put before the Venezuelan people in a … ‘Consultative referendum’ on 3 December 2023.” Guyana asserts that the referendum aims to formally annex the Guyanese territory in dispute. The land in dispute comprises two-thirds of Guyana and has recently been discovered to be oil-rich. Guyana first filed an application instituting proceedings against Venezuela in 2018.
In its October request for provisional measures, Guyana asked that the ICJ prevent Venezuela from proceeding with the referendum in its present form and prevent it from issuing any referendums that may encroach on the 1899 award and sovereignty over the disputed land.
The 1899 Award confirms the “legal and binding effect of the Award regarding the Boundary between the Colony of British Guiana and the United States of Venezuela”. Venezuela argues that a 1966 agreement with the UK, Guyana’s former colonial ruler, superseded the 1899 award and dictates that a commission should be established to resolve the dispute.