THE HAGUE/CARACAS, Dec 1 (Reuters) – World Court judges on Friday ordered Venezuela to refrain from taking actions that would change the situation on the ground in a potentially oil-rich territory that is the subject of a border dispute with Guyana, which controls the area.
The court did not specifically bar Venezuela from holding a referendum on Sunday on its rights to the region around the Essequibo River, as Guyana had requested.
But judges at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) – as the World Court is formally known – ruled that any move to change the status quo must be halted.
“The court notes that the situation currently prevailing in the disputed territory is that Guyana administers and exercises control over that area,” said presiding judge Joan Donohue.
“Venezuela must refrain from taking actions that would change this situation,” she added.
Guyana’s President Irfaan Ali welcomed the court’s decision, while Venezuela’s Vice President Delsey Rodriguez said it was a victory for her country.
“As the court has made clear, Venezuela is prohibited from annexing or entering the territory of Guyana or taking any other action – regardless of the outcome of the December 3rd referendum – that would change the status quo in which Guyana administers and controls the Essequibo region,” Ali said in statement.
The five-question referendum will go ahead, Rodriguez said on state television, adding that Venezuela wants a negotiated solution to the dispute.
The vote “will ratify that our rights to Guayana Esequiba are inalienable and indisputable,” Rodriguez said. “The truth of our motherland has triumphed.”
The vote for the 160,000-square-kilometer (61,776-square-mile) territory, which is largely dense jungle, has sparked concern in Guyana, with the government urging citizens to remain calm.
Venezuela has renewed its claim to the area in recent years following the discovery of oil and gas offshore.
The maritime border between the two countries is also disputed.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has loudly encouraged voters to approve the referendum, which political analysts say is a test of government support ahead of a planned 2024 presidential election, not a prelude to military action.
The referendum, which is “consultative” and can be approved by a simple majority, asks Venezuelans, among other things, whether they agree to annex the region and create a state called Guayana Essequiba.
Analysts said the referendum was likely to be approved, given the lack of a “no” campaign and the likelihood that voters opposed would stay home.
Friday’s decision is the latest development in the larger border dispute. The International Court of Justice said in April it had jurisdiction over the case, but a final ruling could be years away.
Reporting by Stephanie van den Berg and Bart Meyer, additional reporting by Kiana Wilberg in Georgetown and Vivian Sequera in Caracas, writing by Julia Simmes Cobb; Editing by Alex Richardson and Grant McCool
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Vivian reports on politics and general news from Venezuela’s capital, Caracas. She is interested in reporting on how Venezuela’s long economic crisis, with its rampant inflation, has affected human rights, health and the Venezuelan people, among other topics. She previously worked for the Associated Press in Venezuela, Colombia, Cuba and Brazil.