The International Court of Justice issued the ruling two days before a referendum on a disputed oil-rich territory.

The United Nations’ top court has warned Venezuela to stop any action that would alter Guyana’s control over a disputed territory, days before a planned referendum on the area.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) on Friday urged the Latin American country “not to take any action that would alter the situation currently prevailing in the Essequibo region, which makes up about two-thirds of Guyana.”

The court did not explicitly ban Venezuela from holding the referendum on the oil-rich territory, as Guyana had requested.

However, the judges made it clear that any concrete action to change the status quo should be halted and the legally binding decision will remain in effect until a case brought by Guyana against Venezuela over the future of the region is considered by the court.

A protester holds up a “super mustache” sign depicting Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro as a superhero during a pro-government march in Caracas [File: Ariana Cubillos/AP Photo]

A potentially explosive referendum

On Sunday, Venezuela will hold a referendum on the oil-rich Essequibo territory controlled by Guyana.

Despite pending litigation at the International Court of Justice over where the two countries’ border should be, Venezuela has decided to seek the opinions of its citizens on whether or not it should establish a new “state” in Essequibo – a move that Guyana says would pave the way for the neighbor to seize the region “unilaterally and illegally”.

At 160,000 square kilometers (62,000 square miles), Essequibo accounts for more than two-thirds of Guyana, which has administered the territory for over 100 years.

The Guyanese government insists on maintaining the border set by an arbitration tribunal in 1899, but claims Venezuela agreed to the ruling until it changed its mind in 1962.

People line up outside a school to take part in a voting rehearsal for the upcoming December 3 referendum on the territorial dispute between Guyana and Venezuela in Caracas [File: Ariana Cubillos/AP Photo]

Caracas, for its part, claims that the Essequibo River in the east of the region forms a natural border and has been recognized as such since 1777, when the so-called Captaincy General of Venezuela, an administrative district in colonial Spain, was created.

It also refers to the Geneva Agreement, signed in 1966 before Guyana’s independence from Britain, which provided for a negotiated solution to the region’s final borders, but this never materialized.

An oil-rich region

The plebiscite – described as consultative and non-binding – will ask Venezuelan voters five questions.

This includes the question of whether or not to reject the 1899 decision, which Caracas says was “fraudulently imposed.”

Also up for vote is whether Caracas should reject the International Court of Justice’s jurisdiction over the dispute and whether or not the people – currently Guyana – of a new “Guyana-Esequiba state” should be granted Venezuelan citizenship.

This is not a vote on self-determination.

People take part in a pro-government march called “Take back the Esequibo,” the name of a territory disputed between Venezuela and Guyana [File: Ariana Cubillos/AP Photo]

However, Georgetown fears that Venezuela will use a majority “yes” vote as an excuse to abandon the ICJ process and resort to unilateral measures, including the forcible annexation of the entire region.

Guyana says the vote is a violation of international law and has received support from the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the Organization of American States (OAS).

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

Guyana has the world’s largest crude oil reserves per capita, while economically struggling Venezuela, which faces crippling international sanctions, has the largest proven reserves overall.

Just last month, Guyana announced a “significant” new oil discovery in Essequibo, bringing estimated reserves to at least 10 billion barrels – more than Kuwait or the United Arab Emirates.

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