Judges at the World Court on Friday ordered Venezuela to refrain from taking any action that would alter 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 expressly forbid Venezuela from going ahead with a referendum on Sunday over its rights to the region around the Esequibo river, as Guyana has requested.
But judges at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) — as the World Court is formally known — ruled that any move to alter the status quo should be stopped.
"The court observes that the situation that currently prevails in the territory in dispute is that Guyana administers and exercises control over that area," presiding judge Joan Donoghue said.
"Venezuela must refrain from taking any action which would modify that situation," she added.
Guyana's President Irfaan Ali hailed the court's ruling, while Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodriguez said it was a victory for her country.
"As the court has made clear, Venezuela is prohibited from annexing or trespassing upon Guyanese territory or taking any other actions — regardless of the outcome of its referendum on December 3 — that would alter the status quo in which Guyana administers and controls the Esequibo region," Ali said in a 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 over the Guayana Esequiba are irrevocable and unquestionable," Rodriguez said.
The vote about the 160,000-square-kilometer (61,776-square-mile) territory, which is largely thick jungle, has caused anxiety in Guyana, with the government urging citizens to keep calm.
Venezuela reactivated its claim on the area in recent years after the discovery of offshore oil and gas. The maritime border between the two countries is also in dispute.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has vociferously encouraged voters to approve the referendum, in what political analysts say is a test of government support before planned 2024 presidential elections.
Venezuela's dispute with Guyana may have an impact on the elections, said security analyst Rocio San Miguel of the Citizen Watchdog on Security, Defense and the Armed Forces.
"If the elections represent a threat to Maduro's power, he'll suspend them through this route," she said, calling the dispute "a perfect distraction tactic."
She said that while Venezuela has significantly more military power than Guyana, it would not be able to stand up to Guyana's allies, which include the United States.
The referendum, which is "consultative" and can be approved by simple majority, asks Venezuelans, among other things, if they agree to incorporate the region and create a state called Guayana Esequiba.
Political analysts expect voters to approve the proposal, given the lack of any “no” campaign and the likelihood that voters who are opposed will stay home.
Friday's ruling is the latest development in the larger border dispute. The ICJ said in April it had jurisdiction over the case, but a final ruling could be years away.