Belizeans have voted to ask a top United Nations court to decide on neighbouring Guatemala’s claim that it is the rightful owner of half of Belize’s territory, setting the scene for potential resolution of a dispute that has rumbled on for centuries.

In a referendum held in Belize on Wednesday, some 55.4 per cent of voters opted to send the matter to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, according to preliminary results published by the elections and boundaries department on Thursday.

The remaining 44.6 per cent of voters in the former British colony in Central America opposed the motion to ask the court.

The result was a victory for the ruling United Democratic Party (UDP) of Prime Minister Dean Barrow, who is betting the court will settle the issue once and for all.

Votes a decade in the making

Guatemalans in April 2018 voted by an overwhelming majority to have the ICJ rule on the dispute.

Guatemala recognized the independence of Belize at the beginning of the 1990s. But it never accepted the borders and continues to claim about 11,000 square kilometres of Belize, about half of its territory.

In December 2008, both countries signed a deal that its inhabitants could vote to decide whether the territorial claim, which includes various islands, should be decided by the ICJ.

Belize, an English-speaking country of around 375,000 people, became independent in 1981.

Inhabited by Maya before the arrival of Europeans, the territory was claimed by Spain and settled by British buccaneers during the 17th century. Belize later became a British possession surrounded by countries that Spain had colonized.

Guatemala’s government on Thursday applauded the vote in Belize.

The Guatemalan foreign ministry said in a statement that it would immediately contact the foreign ministry of Belize to agree on the next steps in efforts to resolve the dispute.

Officials from the U.S. State Department, the European Union and the Organization of American States (OAS) also welcomed the outcome of the Belize referendum.

Guatemala believes it is a claim to a large swathe of Belize’s territory, including all the land south of Belmopan.