Put a time limit on territorial disputes

Because a study is what the government makes when it doesn't know what else to do, the State Department has a large number of studies of the Caribbean. Few of these have been read, and fewer still have been acted on.

One of them, however, now takes on a new and timely relevance, not for what it says about the Caribbean, but for what it says about territorial disputes in general.

The study in question was made toward the end of the Johnson administration by Milton Barall, a professional foreign service officer who had spent most of his career dealing with Latin America. Among other things, Barall recommended that the United States adopt a statute of limitations with respect to territorial disputes. If the United Nations or regional groupings such as the Organization of American States could be persuaded to adopt the same standard, so much the better. But in any event, let the US do it.

The policy would be not to recognize territorial disputes after a fixed period of years, say, 25 or even 50. After this period, the US and such other nations as it could persuade to adopt the same policy would recognize the status quo. This would have the enormous advantage of putting a time limit on these disputes, at least so far as the US is concerned.

Statutes of limitation have an ancient history: they originated in Roman law and have been in English law since the 16th century. They prevent initiation of a criminal prosecution or a civil legal proceeding after the lapse of a stated number of years. The rationale is that after a time evidence is scattered, witnesses move away or die, and memories fade.

Their great advantage in international affairs would be to provide an end to old disputes. The argument against this, of course, is that it could be said to reward aggression. If a country could hang on long enough to territory which it had illegally seized, it would be home free. The other side of this argument is that after the stated period one might as well accept reality and go about other things.

Barall was thinking about territorial disputes in the Caribbean, specifically the claim of Guatemala against Belize and the claim of Venezuela against Guyana, both dating from the 19th century and both arising from the colonial activities of Great Britain.

The Barall report is brought to mind now, of course, by yet another 19 th-century claim against the British, this one by Argentina over the Falkland or Malvinas Islands. But there are many other situations in which the statute of limitations would be a useful principle.

The US, for example, has not occupied Texas and California for as long as Britain has had the Falklands. The thought of Mexico now asserting a claim appears ludicrous, but logically it is no more ludicrous than the Argentine invasion of the Falklands. (It might be argued, not entirely in jest, that through uncontrolled and largely illegal migration Mexico is in the process of reoccupying Texas and California anyway.)

The question also arises of how much longer the US is going to maintain the diplomatic fiction that Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania are sovereign, independent countries and not a part of the Soviet Union which has occupied them since 1940.

Finally, a statute of limitations would be especially useful in the Middle East. Israel asserts a claim, generally unrecognized internationally, to that portion of the West Bank of the Jordan River which comprised Judea and Samaria in biblical times. Surely the lapse of more than 2,000 years carries with it some erosion of rights; or, from the point of view of the Palestinians, surely such a time span confers some rights. Neither in this nor in other longstanding disputes can the parties totally repeal history and go back and start over.

It might be objected that a territorial statute of limitations would freeze existing boundaries for all time. But it would not preclude revisions freely agreed to by all parties concerned. What it would do, if it were generally accepted as international law, would be to preclude endless agitation of ancient claims which have lost through the erosion of time most if not all of whatever validity they may once have had.

Even if it were no more than a principle adopted unilaterally by the US, it would at least provide a sound and defensible basis for American foreign policy when one of these long simmering irritations comes to a boil.

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