Venezuela's territorial claim -- not so absurd

The small and deeply troubled state of Guyana, formerly the colony of British Guiana, finds that about 50,000 square miles, five-eighths of its entire territory, are being claimed by its large, oil-rich neighbor, Venezuela. The claim is not absurd; the solution is obvious.

In the 1880s and 1890s, British ''frontiersmen'' at the rim of the Empire were busily drawing lines on maps and sending exploratory expeditions into the areas along the ill-defined borders of the more remote colonies. In British Guiana, Sir Robert Schomburgk's line of 1835 was moved in British maps at the expense of Venezuela until in the 1980s the United States felt that the policy of restricting new European colonization in the Western Hemisphere as pronounced in the Monroe Doctrine justified some intervention to save Venezuelan rights.

An arbitration was arranged in which several Americans, including former President Benjamin Harrison and Severo Mallet-Prevost, represented Venezuela. The tribunal was composed of two British jurists, two Americans (both members of the Supreme Court), and a Russian of indisputable eminence as an international lawyer, M. F. de Martens. The arbitral award of 1899 was accepted by both sides, with considerable grumbling by Venezuela. And there the matter seemed to rest.

In 1949, shortly after the death of Mr. Mallet-Prevost, the American Journal of International Law published a memorandum dictated by him in 1944 in which he alleged on the basis of discussions with the two American arbitrators that a ''deal'' had been struck between Great Britain and Russia under which the Russian arbitrator had been instructed to favor the British claim; that a bargain to salvage the mouth of the Orinoco River for Venezuela had been achieved by de Martens; but that the total result ''was unjust to Venezuela and took away very extensive and important territory from her, over which Great Britain did not have, in my opinion, a shadow of right.'' The American arbitrators concurred in the award to end the matter and because nothing more favorable to Venezuela was achievable in the face of the position taken by de Martens.

There is, of course, some question as to the weight that should be given Mallet-Provost's memorandum. Attorneys on the losing side often suspect corruption in the tribunal that ruled against them; the others involved were already dead when he dictated it; even if totally true, it is not clear that Mallet-Prevost knew all the facts and the possible other and more persuasive and honorable reasons why the line was drawn by the arbitrators in its present place.

On the other hand, the British case was not strong, and Guyana as the legal successor to British Guiana, can well suppose that a reexamination of the border would result in a settlement less favorable to her than that reached in 1899.

What saves the situation is that as a matter of fact very little of any significance has happened in the disputed area since 1899. There are no sizeable settlements; the area is mostly jungle and swamp; speculation over rich natural resources is rife, but nothing is certain; the aborigines and settlers on the fringes of the area do not have strong feelings about governance by either claimant. It is possible to suppose that they will be made equally unhappy by the march of what we are pleased to call civilization from whatever direction.

The opposition to resubmitting the question to arbitration comes from Guyana's doubts as to the degree to which a result as favorable to it as the result of 1899 would be achieved by an honest tribunal, and the emotional desire by Venezuela that the necessary first step in a reconsideration of the border should be the condemnation of British imperialism and American involvement (forgetting that the American involvement in this case was vigorously on the the Venezuelan side).

Guyana's objection seems sensible for Guyana, until it is remembered that the territory involved is at the moment totally useless to Guyana while friendship with Venezuela is a geographical necessity. Venezuela's objection implies that honor and not territory is the real object of the complaint (surely a good sign for Guyana). It is persuasive only until it is remembered that there are better ways of salVaging honor than by casting doubts on the honor of the dead.

The simple solution would be an agreement between Guyana and Venezuela that the old arbitration award, whatever its merits or faults, is not acceptable as a basis for the kind of economic development both states would like to encourage in the disputed area, and that each state recognizes that economic activities in the area are of legal as well as economic and political intarest to the other; that supply lines, roads, support bases, and other infrastructure in the area cannot be efficiently planned unless the facilities of both countries are available.

If this were done, a new tribunal, excluding Americans, British and Russians, could be constituted by agreement of Guyana and Venezuela; a formal boundary could be fixed disregarding the award of 1899 and superseding it, but based on the same documentation plus the minor extension of settlements on the ground since.

Better yet, in place of fixing a boundary, and following such precedents as the International Court of Justice's handling of the North Sea Continental Shelf Cases in 1969, the tribunal could be asked to set out the principles for drawing a boundary, including principles of ease of communication, difficulties of transportation, and the present location of staging areas and support facilities for the exploration of the natural resources of the area.

On a more innovative line, it might even be possible for the parties to agree not to have any boundary, but to set up an administration with authority delegated by both states for the purposes of economic activity, reserving boundary issues for later.

The possibilities are limited only by imagination and the willingness of the people on both sides to cooperate in an area subject to overlapping assertions of right, and probably not worth the blood of young people on either side. In any case, the US should not side with any government that places a ''national honor'' that does not seem to be involved over the economic and human interests of its own people.

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