Diplomacy is our first line of defence but GDF must be vigilant at borders – PM Phillips

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Prime Minister Brigadier (Ret’d) Mark Phillips

In the face of heightened tension from neighbouring Venezuela, Prime Minister Brigadier (Ret’d) Mark Phillips has reminded that Guyana’s first line of defence is diplomacy, but, in the same breath, noted that the Guyana Defence Force (GDF) is expected to maintain its vigilance at the country’s borders.

Speaking with reporters on the sidelines of an event at the GDF’s Headquarters in Georgetown on Friday, PM Phillips said the army has been monitoring developments along Guyana’s border it shares with Venezuela, which is laying claim to more than two-thirds of the country’s landmass in the Essequibo.

“At a time like this, the GDF would have been monitoring all movements on our frontiers. That itself may require them to maybe adjust whatever troops that they have at different locations and so… The bottom line is, we expect the GDF to continue to be vigilant on our frontiers,” Phillips, a former army Chief, stated.

According to the Prime Minister, this is especially important given the posture of the Guyana Government in using diplomacy as its first line of defence against the rising threats from the Spanish-speaking nation.

“As you know, diplomacy is our first line of defence. It means that the GDF must be able to quickly report to the Government any unusual occurrence or occurrences on our frontiers, and the Government will then take it further and make the necessary reports or raise the concerns with friendly nations and with international organisations and regional organisations that Guyana is a part of,” Brigadier Phillips posited.

Over the past few weeks, Guyana has been informing regional and international partners of Venezuela’s planned referendum that is set for December 3, 2023, over its claim of the Essequibo region.

On September 21, 2023, Venezuela’s National Assembly passed a resolution calling for a referendum regarding Venezuela’s unsubstantiated claim to two-thirds of Guyana’s territory in the Essequibo.

Subsequently, the Venezuelan National Electoral Council last month published a list of five questions that it plans to put before the Venezuelan people. The referendum will seek the Venezuelan people’s approval to, among other things, annex Guyana’s territory in the Essequibo and create a Venezuelan state. Question 5 seeks the citizens’ approval for Venezuela to grant citizenship and identity cards to residents of Essequibo.

This referendum has been criticised by the United States, the Caribbean Community (Caricom), the Commonwealth of Nations, and the Organisation of American States (OAS), as well as several other nations in the Region, including Brazil, which borders both Guyana and Venezuela.

There is consensus that Venezuela’s referendum and heightened aggression against Guyana will threaten the peace, security, and stability of the Region. Moreover, in the past few weeks, Venezuela has been conducting military drills near Guyana’s borders and mobilising more troops.

Defending Guyana’s sovereignty and territorial integrity

On this note, the Chief of Staff of the GDF, Brigadier Omar Khan declared the army’s commitment to safeguarding and defending all of Guyana’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.

“I want to assure you, we will continue to do just that – defending all 83,000 square miles of our beloved country,” Brigadier Khan asserted while addressing an audience of mainly Guyanese veterans.

Similar sentiments were expressed by Commissioner of Police, Clifton Hicken, earlier this week at a press conference, where it was revealed that the Guyana Police Force has heightened its presence at border locations across the country.

“Guyana belongs to us and we’re going to police Guyana as far as practicable …We have Police [divisions] within the boundaries and borders of Guyana, and as we speak, the Police and members of the Joint Services are working very hard and we’ve built our capacity at the border regions, and so we’re bringing some comfort to the regions out there.”

“But as long as we have our establishment, Region Two (Pomeroon-Supenaam) belongs to Guyana and Guyana’s boundary will not be alerted in any way, and our final decision [to determine the boundaries with Venezuela] is at the ICJ (International Court of Justice] and Police members, Commanders and members of the Joint Services will remain resolute in that regard,” the Top Cop contended.

There was an article published by a local online media entity on Thursday which stated that the GDF has issued a moratorium on all overseas vacations for army ranks.

This publication reached out to the Chief of Staff on Thursday to confirm this report. However, Brigadier Khan said “Our personnel matters are unique and is not something we discuss readily in the public.”

Meanwhile, on another issue, the GDF issued a warning on Friday against a fake notice which claimed that there is a “national order” for the army to conduct a draft of youths to defend Guyana’s border.

In a statement, however, the GDF said it has not produced, distributed or caused to distribute any ‘notice’ or ‘national order’ regarding any form of recruitment at this time.

“The Force has noted the circulation of ‘fake’ correspondence in this regard and urges citizens to ignore any such misinformation. The Force takes this opportunity to remind the public that all official releases of the Force are communicated through the media and the Force’s social media platforms,” the missive from the GDF detailed.

Moreover, it further encouraged persons to be socially responsible and refrain from mischievously sharing and distributing fake notices of this nature.

In light of Caracas’ planned referendum, Guyana has asked the ICJ to impose provisional measures to prevent Venezuela from posing certain questions to its population. Guyana’s legal team argued before the World Court that the country is not attempting to halt Venezuela’s referendum but rather, seeking provisional measures that will prevent its Essequibo region from being annexed by any means.

After hearing from the two countries on Tuesday and Wednesday, the ICJ is expected to hand down a ruling soon.

In March 2018, Guyana moved the World Court, seeking a final and binding judgement that the 1899 Arbitral Award, which established the location of the land boundary between then-British Guiana and Venezuela, remains valid and binding, and that the county of Essequibo belongs to Guyana, and not Venezuela, as is being argued by the Spanish-speaking nation.