THE HAGUE, Dec 1 — The UN’s top court today ordered Venezuela not to take any action to upset the status quo with Guyana, two days before a potentially explosive referendum over a disputed oil-rich territory.

Without expressly mentioning the vote planned for December 3, the International Court of Justice said Venezuela “shall refrain from taking any action which would modify the situation that currently prevails in the territory in dispute.”

The court also ordered both parties to “refrain from any action which might aggravate or extend the dispute before the court or make it more difficult to resolve.”


Venezuela has for decades laid claim to the Essequibo region, which is governed by Guyana and makes up more than two-thirds of its territory, home to 125,000 of its 800,000 citizens.

Caracas plans a referendum on December 3 calling into question an 1899 decision by an arbitration tribunal that fixed the border with Guyana — a former colony of both Britain and the Netherlands.

Guyana says the referendum poses an “existential” threat to the country and had petitioned the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to urgently call a halt to the vote “in its present form”.


The court said there was a “serious risk of Venezuela acquiring and exercising control and administration of the territory in dispute in the present case.”

The dispute has intensified since ExxonMobil discovered oil in Essequibo in 2015.

In addition, a “significant” new oil discovery was made in the region in October, adding to Guyana’s reserves of at least 10 billion barrels — more than Kuwait or the United Arab Emirates.

Tiny Guyana has the world’s biggest reserves of crude per capita, while its neighbour sits on the largest proven reserves overall.

In the referendum, Venezuelans will be asked whether or not to reject the 1899 decision, which Caracas says was “fraudulently imposed”.

Also on the ballot is whether Venezuela should reject ICJ jurisdiction over the dispute, and whether or not to grant Venezuelan citizenship to the people of an annexed Essequibo.

‘Crude and childish’

Guyana says the referendum would pave the way for Venezuela to “unilaterally and illegally” seize the region.

Paul Reichler, a top lawyer representing Guyana, told the court during hearings in November that “military preparations were already underway” to enforce the referendum result.

Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodriguez dismissed these claims, saying a recent military mobilisation was to prepare for the referendum.

“Venezuela reaffirms its categorical rejection of Guyana’s audacious action to interfere in its internal affairs,” Rodriguez told the court, dismissing Guyana’s case as “judicial colonialism” that was “crude and childish”.

“Nothing will prevent the referendum scheduled on December 3 from being held,” she added.

At the same time, she rejected any suggestion that their participation in the case represented any recognition of the ICJ’s jurisdiction.

The ICJ rules on disputes between states but while its decisions are legally binding, it has no power to enforce them.

Rodriguez said the dispute “has shown the true face of Guyana, an aggressor state, a predator of natural resources and a violator of international law, in no way a victim.”

Asked what the people of the region could expect after the December 3 vote, Rodriguez told AFP: “They know Venezuela. They know Venezuela is a country of peace.” — AFP