World Court: Defiant Venezuela says nothing will stop its Dec 3 referendum

A defiant Delcy Rodriguez, Vice President of Venezuela, Wednesday declared to the World Court that nothing will stop Venezuela from proceeding with its December 3 referendum, which Guyana has argued seeks to annex the Essequibo region.

Rodriguez further declared that once the referendum is over and the votes are counted, “the State of Venezuela will not turn its back on what the people decide.”

Guyana Tuesday argued before the Court that the referendum is intended to be used as a trigger for Venezuela to seize Guyana’s territory by military force.

Rodriguez painted Guyana as an aggressor State that plans to attack Venezuela with the help of its ally the United States, something which Guyana has denied, saying it has no interest in disturbing the peace of the Caribbean region.

Guyana’s team, including agent Carl Greenidge and Attorney General Anil Nandlall, listen as Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodriguez addresses the World Court (Photo: News Room/ November 15, 2023)

Rodriguez said the referendum is an internal matter and that by coming to the Court to prevent Venezuela from carrying out is referendum in its present form, Guyana was seeking to institutional “judicial colonialism.”

Attorney General Anil Nandlall said Venezuela has a right to hold any referendum it chooses, but its referendum cannot seek to dictate action to violate another country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Guyana argues that because the referendum has direct bearing on the case before the Court, the ICJ is empowered to rule on provisional measures until it determines the full case before it.

Mr Nandall says even if the Court rules that it cannot prevent Venezuela from holding its referendum, Guyana hopes the Court can say something that would prevent Venezuela from taking action on the results of the referendum.

After decades of negotiations failed to bring a resolution to the border controversy, the United Nations Secretary-General referred the controversy to the World Court and Guyana filed its case in March 2018 to obtain a full and final settlement.

Attorney General Anil Nandlall and members of the Guyana team await the start of the World Court hearing on Wednesday. At left is one of Guyana’s lead counsel, Mr Paul Reichler, and at right is Guyana’s agent to the Court Mr Carl Greenidge (Photo: News Room/ November 15, 2023)

The provision for the UN Secretary-General to determine the means to permanently settle the border controversy is provided for in the Geneva Agreement. This agreement was signed by then Prime Minister of Guyana Forbes Burnham and Venezuela’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ignacio Borges in 1966 shortly after Venezuela first raised an objection to the 1899 arbitral award that settled the boundaries of Guyana.

Venezuela accepted that award and participated in the marking of the boundary line, accepting Guyana’s land area as legal, doing so for six decades until it raised an objection to the arbitral award on the eve of Guyana’s independence from Great Britain.

In Court Wednesday though, Rodriguez said Venezuela has “alienable” rights to the territory of Guyana it claims, charging that Venezuela was a victim of the British empire.

Guyana argued in Court that Venezuela has already decided to annex Guyana’s territory and that the referendum was just a rubberstamp, a farce, designed to conjure up the idea that the move to annex Guyana’s territory was a desire of the Venezuelan people.

Rodriguez said Guyana’s move to the World Court to seek to curtail the referendum was “abhorrent and illegal behaviour.” She further labelled Guyana as an aggressor state, a predator of natural resources, and a violator of international law.

Rodriguez said the move to the World Court to settle the border controversy only arose when ExxonMobil began making world-class oil discoveries offshore Guyana.

But Guyana has rejected this claim, as it was the United Nations Secretary-General who determined that the matter should be settled at the World Court after negotiations failed.

Venezuela’s agent before the Court, Samuel Moncada, said the 1899 arbitral award was a “crime” from which Guyana benefitted and said nothing in the Geneva Agreement prevents Venezuela from undertaking its referendum.

The Geneva Agreement states that “no acts or activities taking place while this Agreement is in force shall constitute a basis for asserting, supporting or denying a claim to territorial sovereignty in the territories of Venezuela or British Guiana or create any rights of sovereignty in those territories.”

The President of the World Court announced that the court would give its order in the case as soon as possible.

On Tuesday, one of Guyana’s lead attorneys in the case, Mr Paul Reichler argued that Guyana risks irreparable harm or permanent loss of its territory if the referendum, in its present form, goes ahead and Venezuela takes action to annex the Essequibo region. If the court decides on the substantive case later and rules in Guyana’s favour, Mr Reichler argued that it would be difficult to reverse the annexation.

But he said the Court, one of the six principal organs of the United Nations, has time and can act before Venezuela does.

Guyana’s agent in the case, Mr Carl Greenidge, pointed to the danger of the referendum to Guyana’s sovereignty.

“Once Venezuela creates a new state incorporating this territory and grants Venezuelan citizenship to the population, how will this seizure of Guyana’s territory be reversed, if in its judgements on the merits the court rules that the 1899 award is valid and that Guyana is the lawful sovereign? How will Venezuela’s actions be reversed and Guyana’s rights to the territory be restored if Venezuela rejects the Court’s jurisdiction and refuses to recognise the validity of its judgements on the merits?

“As I stand today, Guyana’s rights to over two thirds of its territory are threatened, not only by irreparable injury but by permanent loss,” Mr Greenidge stated.

The Venezuelan Referendum

The Venezuela referendum on December 3 asks the Venezuelan people to agree or reject the 1899 Arbitral Award.

They are also being asked to say whether support the Geneva Agreement as only means to settle the controversy, with Rodriguez again parroting the argument that the Geneva Agreement only provides for dialogue to settle the controversy when the agreement when explicitly allows for the UN Secretary General to determine the way forward if direct talks yield no fruit.

The referendum also includes a question for the Venezuelan people to say whether they agree with the Venezuela government for not recognizing the jurisdiction, or the legal right of the Court.

The most contentious of the questions is that asking the Venezuelan people to agree with using Guyana’s territory it claims, for the creation of a  new State called the “Guayana Esequiba”, and grant Venezuelan citizenship and ID cards, and incorporate the territory on the map of Venezuela.


On October 30, Guyana filed its request for provisional measures.

Guyana is asking the Court to indicate the following provisional measures:

  1. Venezuela shall not proceed with the Consultative Referendum planned for 3 December 2023 in its present form;
  2. In particular, Venezuela shall not include the First, Third or Fifth questions in the Consultative Referendum;
  3. Nor shall Venezuela include within the ‘Consultative Referendum’ planned, or any other public referendum, any question encroaching upon the legal issues to be determined by the Court in its Judgment on the Merits, including (but not limited to):
  4. the legal validity and binding effect of the 1899 Award;
  5. sovereignty over the territory between the Essequibo River, and the boundary established by the 1899 Award and the 1905 Agreement; and
  6. the purported creation of the State of ‘Guayana Esequiba’ and any associated measures, including the granting of Venezuelan citizenship and national identity cards.
  7. Venezuela shall not take any actions that are intended to prepare or allow the exercise of sovereignty or de facto control over any territory that was awarded to British Guiana in the 1899 Arbitral Award.
  8. Venezuela shall refrain from any action which might aggravate or extend the dispute before the Court or make it more difficult to resolve.”

The Court is likely to render its ruling before the Venezuelan referendum.