Ashcroft threatens GOB again; calls for settlement

The content originally appeared on: News Americas Now

Black Immigrant Daily News

The content originally appeared on: Amandala Newspaper

Photo: Lord Michael Ashcroft

KREM News, in its Thursday, January 25 headline story, disclosed that Lord Michael Ashcroft, chairman of Waterloo Investment Holdings Ltd., has written Prime Minister John Briceño a second time regarding the company’s proposal to construct a cruise terminal at the Port of Belize Ltd. (PBL) (in conjunction with expansion of cargo capacity at the port).

In an initial letter that was sent to the Prime Minister in January of last year, Ashcroft threatened to take the matter to international arbitration under the 1982 Treaty between the UK and the Government of Belize for the Promotion and Protection of Investments. That treaty is otherwise known as the Belize-UK Bilateral Investment Treaty or Belize-UK BIT for short. That first letter was sent just a few weeks after the National Environmental Appraisal Committee (NEAC) of the Department of the Environment (DOE) denied the project environmental approval. Via the most recent letter, we have learned that the Government responded to Ashcroft in what he calls the ‘Trigger Letter Response.’

In the latest 14-page letter dated January 19, 2023, Ashcroft claims that since his last letter was sent in January of 2022, there have been developments that have somehow compounded the company’s reasons for resorting to international arbitration.

Ashcroft states, “the purpose of this letter is to set out the way in which the developments to-date constitute a claim under the UK-Belize BIT.” The new letter was sent to the government during an ongoing appeal process in response to the NEAC’s second denial of the PBL cruise terminal and cargo expansion project.

Ashcroft states in the second letter to the Prime Minister that Waterloo invested in PBL through Prize Holdings International Limited (PHIL) which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Waterloo in Turks and Caicos, a British overseas territory. The Ashcroft letter claims that PHIL, through its wholly owned subsidiary, Private Investment Limited (PIL), loaned PBL and its parent company, The Belize Port Limited, BZ$64 million in 2010. Additionally, Ashcroft says British Caribbean Bank Limited, another wholly owned subsidiary of Waterloo in Turks and Caicos, also loaned PBL’s parent company and PBL US $38 million on December 8, 2005. He further claims that PHIL bought out PBL’s parent company “through separate share acquisitions taking place in 2019 and 2020.”

An AMANDALA article dated August 27, 2022 had made reference to Ashcroft’s initial letter that was sent to the Prime Minister in January of last year and had made the following poignant observations: … The letter sent by Lord Ashcroft was issued before any final determination was made about the environmental impact of the project. And it also made no mention of the still-ongoing assessment of the social impact of the project. Neither does it acknowledge the gravity of any of the other considerations that would impact any decision by GoB—including the approval already given to two other cruise terminal projects…. within a small geographical area (an 8-mile radius) in the Belize District. What is seemingly suggested in the letter is that none of that matters—that perhaps the sheer fact that a UK investor is desirous of building a port obliges the government to issue an approval or risk violating this investment treaty. Questions have thus surfaced about what exactly are the terms of such a treaty—and whether it requires a country to disregard any environmental harm or social harm that could be caused in order to ensure compliance. Some in the public are wondering how Lord Ashcroft could be requesting payback for money he spent of his own volition to develop a project, the approval of which was never guaranteed. There is, in fact, an even more gnawing question in many Belizeans’ minds: were any assurances given to the Waterloo investor, either by this current administration, or the previous one?”

In regard to that question, Ashcroft makes statements in his most recent letter that suggest that some type of encouragement was given to the company by the government to pursue its project, but there are no references to any explicit indication by the government that it would approve such a project, and thus it is not clear if there was a rush to interpret some government correspondence or action as an assurance of some sort. Ashcroft, however, insists, using general, non-specific terms that since the privatization of the port in 2002, the Government “…made certain commitments which would allow PBL to construct a new cruise facility on PBL’s land.” And he suggested that whatever actions were taken (or commitments made) by government led the company to conclude “that approval would be forthcoming for the PBL project or an iteration of it and that a fair and transparentprocess would be adopted in order to secure environmental clearance.”

He goes on to suggest—despite the multiple technical reasons presented by the Department of the Environment for the rejection of Waterloo’s proposal, which would have involved the dredging and dumping of millions of cubic meters of material at a nearshore and possibly offshore site—that the rejection of Waterloo’s project was somehow unfair and that partiality was shown to another project: the Port of Magical Belize.

The letter also made reference to a new bill drafted to replace the Belize Port Authority Act which Ashcroft says was the basis on which the Waterloo Group invested in PBL. He states that if this new bill is enacted, it will “amount to a charter for interference with the business operations and management of the port which the Waterloo group is entitled to expect to be privately managed, at least for the 30-year duration of its 2003 license.” This means that there is another 10 more years to go on the license.

According to Ashcroft’s letter, the Government in its response to his first letter, stated that the claim is premature. Ashcroft counters that the acts outlined in the first letter and his second one, “…affected the Waterloo Group and its investments in Belize…which causes loss to the Waterloo Group. Nothing further is required for Waterloo Group’s claim to crystallize.” He asserted that the UK-Belize BIT does not feature a provision “requiring that a domestic appeal process, once commenced, be taken to its conclusion before a claim can be made under the BIT.” He then stated that this dispute may now be submitted to international arbitration under the treaty but proceeds to indicate Waterloo’s willingness to discuss an amicable settlement of the matter, or else it will commence arbitration proceedings no later than February 28, 2023.

The Prime Minister today told KREM News that the Ministry of Sustainable Development and their legal team are dealing with the letter.