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Guyana: Sovereign Territory

Volume 834: debated on Tuesday 12 December 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what support they are providing to Guyana in response to the threat of illegal annexation of parts of its sovereign territory by Venezuela.

My Lords, the UK is fully engaged at senior levels following the recent steps taken by Venezuela with respect to the Essequibo region of Guyana. The actions of Venezuela are unjustified and should cease. We are clear that the border was settled in 1899 through international arbitration. My noble friend the Foreign Secretary made clear our position in a recent meeting and subsequent calls with President Ali of Guyana. We will continue to work with allies and partners in the region and through international bodies such as the UN Security Council, the Commonwealth and the Organization of American States to ensure that the territorial integrity of Guyana is fully protected and respected.

I thank the Minister for his Answer and declare an interest as president of the Caribbean Council, which has sent three missions to Guyana in the last year, hosted President Ali as a guest of honour in this House, and organised seminars on trade and investment with Guyana. This provocative move by President Maduro—backed by President Putin, of course—reviving a dispute settled, as the Minister said, in 1899, is a blatant attempt to distract attention from his unpopularity at home. The claim is being reviewed by the International Court of Justice, which has urged no action by Venezuela, but the President of Venezuela has said he does not recognise the court—which is standard practice, of course, for dictators and authoritarian regimes. They threaten the free world. What can the Government do, apart from what the Minister said, with Americans, the Commonwealth and any other institutions to ensure that this aggression does not lead to conflict, that Guyana’s territory is protected, and that it has the full support of Britain and the Commonwealth?

My Lords, I recognise the important work that the noble Lord does with respect to the Caribbean. As he said, we are working through multilateral institutions as well. There was a UN meeting on 8 December. There was also a Commonwealth meeting of Ministers convened yesterday. Again, there was a strong statement from all Commonwealth countries in support of Guyana’s position. I know that, over the years, meetings have been called at the UN on Guyana’s territorial sovereignty and integrity and the UK’s position has been very clear. We have called for immediate de-escalation. This rhetoric cannot be allowed to continue. Another meeting is being convened by Caribbean and Latin American countries later this week, as the noble Lord will know, to which both leaders have been invited, but the UK is very clear. That is why my noble friend the Foreign Secretary has engaged extensively, with Irfaan Ali directly. Indeed, he met him directly in the margins of COP and subsequently has made a number of calls to give that reassurance and strong support.

My Lords, given that the present Government of Venezuela have stated that they have always laid claim to this part of Guyana as part of their territory, can my noble friend say whether he or the FCDO has any record of such claims? I must say that it was news to me.

My Lords, recognising the important role of my noble friend over many years when it comes to the Caribbean and South America—indeed, we had an enlightened debate only last week on the very issue of South America—the UK’s position has been clear and that is why it is important that the UN restates it. Coming back to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, we should come together with multilateral organisations, particularly within the Commonwealth, to underline our strong support for Guyana’s position.

In that debate, the noble Lord mentioned the UNGA high-level panel meeting and his representations. At Friday’s Security Council meeting there was an opportunity to raise the issue. What further discussions has he had at the United Nations and what action is the United Kingdom going to press for at the UN? We need a clear pathway to ensure that this threatened action is stopped immediately.

The noble Lord will have noted our statement at the United Nations Security Council. I was not there but elsewhere; I cannot remember where I was on that date, but I was somewhere in the world. The United Kingdom is engaged extensively on the issue. Yesterday, the Minister for Development covered the meeting with the Commonwealth Secretary-General, and my noble friend, when he travelled to the United States, had similar discussions with our partners and allies in Washington, together with Secretary Blinken, on this issue. It is important that we stand by Guyana at this time, and I know that His Majesty’s Opposition agree. The position has been agreed and that agreement is long-standing. In Venezuela, there is a lot of political rhetoric and an election next year. We know the status of Mr Maduro. The United Kingdom does not engage with him directly and recognises that he is desperately in trouble in Venezuela. This may well all be rhetoric, but we must be mindful of that to ensure that any action taken gets a unified response diplomatically from across the world.

Having been in the Essequibo region earlier in the year, I think it right that Guyana pursues this matter through diplomatic routes—the ICJ, the UN and other forums. But the fact is that the Venezuelan military is much stronger. It has tanks, jets and naval assets sourced from Russia, Iran and elsewhere. In addition to the support that the US Southern Command and the Brazilians reinforcing the border are providing, are the British Government willing to commit that Guyana will get defence support from this country should Guyana seek it to deter Venezuelan military aggression?

My Lords, we have supported Guyana over a number of years. The noble Lord raises a valid point. I assure him that we are very much seized of the issues of protecting the sovereignty of Guyana. I do not want to go into what may happen. The United Kingdom, including its military assets, is engaged around the world but, for now, we are very much focused on the diplomatic channels. We are urging all partners with leverage over Venezuela and its Administration to ensure this does not escalate, and that is where our focus is.

My Lords, is this not a rather chilling example of what happens when big countries start bullying small countries when the rule of law is disregarded generally and people feel that they can grab what they like out of the international order? Will my noble friend accept that this kind of unfolding anarchy is precisely why we obviously should stand firm with our friends in Ukraine? We should leave no doubt at all that these kinds of illegal acts must be stopped, because each one allowed through will produce a dozen more.

My Lords, Nelson’s favourite defence negotiators in Europe were a squadron of British battleships. Unfortunately, we do not have as many military assets as we used to. Does the Minster agree that this sort of aggression, or what looks as if it will become aggression, should be stood up to? We cannot allow Ukraine and now this from these Putin-like people, but we need military forces for that. Does the Minister not think that we ought to put a little more money into our military forces?

I am sure that my noble friend Lord Minto has taken note of the noble Lord’s final point. I agree that we are proud of our military, which has stood by countries such as Ukraine. As I said in response to an earlier question, we have assets around the world that we deploy for life-saving missions for humanitarian causes and to ensure that the security of the rules-based order that we adhere to is sustained, maintained and strengthened.

My Lords, Guyana is the only Commonwealth member in South America. I read the Commonwealth ministerial group communiqué, to which the Minister referred; it endorses the position of the UK as a member of that group. However, if the Commonwealth is to be relevant for its only member in South America, what practical next steps can it take with regard to the follow-up from the CMG meeting yesterday?

My Lords, I have answered that in question in part. It is important to recognise the role of our Caribbean partners. The meeting being convened is reflective of the unity between Latin American, South American and Caribbean countries, as is the fact that it is being hosted as it is. The noble Lord will be aware of the role of Barbados in looking more to the long term and internally on Venezuela and the situation there. Stability and security in Venezuela are key to ensuring stability and security in the wider region.

The meeting will convene on Thursday in St Vincent—at which, we hope, the presidents of Venezuela and Guyana will be present. Can my noble friend give any indication as to whether the Commonwealth Secretary-General will also attend that meeting?

I seem to be taking on the role of diary secretary for a number of people at Questions today. The short answer is that I am sure she is considering the important role of the Commonwealth. The convening power of the Commonwealth is in the incredible 50-plus nations that come together, but this meeting is taking place within the context of co-operation between Latin America and the Caribbean nations. I am not aware of the Secretary-General’s attendance but, if I hear that it is confirmed, I will share it with my noble friend.