ICJ Hears Oral Arguments on Whether to Issue Provisional Measures Against Venezuela’s Consultative Referendum Questions

By: Megan Mary Qualters

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

THE HAGUE, Netherlands – The Co-Republic of Guyana (Guyana) is asking the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to issue provisional measures against the Bolivian Republic of Venezuela (Venezuela) regarding their border conflict and the Agreement that governs it. The ICJ, after establishing its jurisdictional authority in this situation, heard initial oral arguments from each country on Tuesday, November 14th and Wednesday, November 15th, 2023.

Photo map of Venezuela and Guyana and the region known as the “Guayana Esequiba.” | Photo courtesy of WLRN Public Radio and Television.


The Arbitral Agreement of 1899 (Agreement) established the boundary line between the “Colony of British Guiana” (Guyana) and the “United States of Venezuela” (Venezuela). However, a strip of land called the “Guayana Esequiba” is highly contested territory between the two countries. The Agreement establishes that the Guayana Esequiba is administered to Guyana, but Venezuela claims that the Guayana Esequiba is its own territory. The dispute originates from the colonial powers; Venezuela declared its independence from Spain in 1811, and Guyana only received independence from the United Kingdom in 1966. Venezuela contends that the Agreement was fraudulently imposed, despite the fact that it did not contest the border upon the Agreement’s inception. The dispute between the countries is before the ICJ upon referral from the Secretary-General acting within the authority of the Geneva Agreement of 1966. The Geneva Agreement established how a peaceful settlement was to be reached between border controversies should countries not reach their own agreement; Venezuela and Guyana are both a party to this agreement.

What’s New:

On October 3rd, 2023, Venezuela’s National Electoral Council published a list of five questions that it plans to use in a public “Consultative Referendum” on December 3rd, 2023. Notably, the first question is “Do you agree to reject, by all means in accordance with the Law, the line fraudulently imposed by the 1899 Paris Arbitral Award, that seeks to strip us of our Guayana Esequiba?” The third question is about ignoring the jurisdiction the ICJ has over this controversy. The fifth question calls for the creation of a Guayana Esequiba State with a plan to present that territory’s citizens with Venezuelan citizenship, and incorporate it into Venezuelan territory. Guyana asserts that these questions reflect Venezuela’s intention to unilaterally and unlawfully seize, annex, and incorporate the Guayana Esequiba. Therefore, Guyana asked the ICJ on October 27th, 2023 to issue provisional measures that would prohibit Venezuela from publishing questions and any other attempt to “seize annex or incorporate” any land that belongs to Guyana. The ICJ agreed to hear oral arguments regarding this issue on November 14th and 15th, 2023.  

What is a Provisional Measure Issued by the ICJ:

A provisional measure is an interim order issued for immediate protection of an individual’s rights under a treaty or convention, if those rights are at “a real imminent risk that irreparable prejudice will be caused to the rights claimed, before the Court gives its final decision, of suffering irreparable prejudice absent enactment measures.”

Guyana’s Call for Urgent Action:

In Guyana’s request for provisional measures from the ICJ, Guyana argues that if Venezuela holds the Referendum on December 3rd, it can anticipate being annexed unlawfully. Guyana argues that if annexation happens, it will be irreparably prejudiced in the ICJ proceedings regarding the validity of the Agreement. Furthermore, the Guyana argues that it will be unable to recover even if the ICJ later holds the Agreement to be valid or settles the dispute in a way which grants Guyana any part of the Guayana Esequiba.  Guyana urges that according to Article 41(1) of the Statute of the ICJ, the ICJ must issue provisional measures.

For further information, please see:

United Nations – Agreement to Resolve the Controversy over the Frontier between Venezuela and British Guiana (Geneva Agreement) – May 6 1966

ICJ – Arbitral Award of 3 October 1899, (Guyana v. Venezuela) – Accessed November 9, 2023

UN: Political and Peacebuilding Affairs – Boarder Controversy between Guyana and Venezuela – ND

ICJ – Case Concerning Arbitral Award of 3 Oct. 1899, (Guyana v. Venezuela)

Lieber Institute – The ICJ’s Provisional Measures Order: Unprecedented – Mar. 17, 2022

ICJ – Press Releases – Nov. 9, 2023

WLRN – Venezuelans Say Most Of Guyana Is Theirs. Guyanese Call That A ‘Jumbie’ Story – Sept. 14, 2021

Author: Sydney Krause