UNASUR Pushes Forward with Continental Integration as Leaders Express Unease over Colombia-US milit

  The inauguration of President Rafael Correa of Ecuador coincided with the holding of the third regular presidential summit of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) in Quito on August 10. In the days preceding this meeting, speculation was rife that the recent agreement by Colombia to allow the use of seven military bases by the US military would be a central issue. But though this matter was discussed, the final summit declaration made no mention of it since the Foreign Ministers at the preparatory meeting the day before did not reach agreement on a proposal by Venezuela and Bolivia to formally issue a condemnation of the plan.

During the discussions, Presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, Cristina Fernandez of Argentina, Evo Morales of Bolivia, Fernando Lugo of Paraguay, Rafael Correa of Ecuador and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela expressed unease over the Colombia-US plan, saying that would pose a serious threat to the region.

But President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia was not there to hear these collective concerns since he was noticeably absent from Quito. He was represented by his Deputy Foreign Minister who defended the bases saying they will not affect outside nations since they would be “completely under Colombian jurisdiction and sovereignty."

Eventually, the summit agreed to convene an extraordinary session in Argentina on August 28 to further examine the issue with Uribe. The Colombian president has insisted that his country needs US support to combat the drug lords and the left-wing FARC guerrillas, currently waging a long-running war against the government.

The Brazilian president has since called upon US President Barack Obama to meet with South American leaders to discuss the implications of the growing American military presence in Colombia.

Despite this crucial issue pervading the summit, intensive discussions on other relevant matters did occur, and by the end of the day, the 12 member countries firmly agreed to strengthen continental integration in a wide range of areas. This was reflected in the Declaration of Quito, which, inter alia, urges the organisation’s Energy Council to develop an energy strategy, an action plan and a project for energy integration.

In addition, the declaration instructed the continent’s finance ministers to complete research on the creation of a Bank of the South, a fund of common reserves, and the possible use of a system for regional payments.

Significantly, the leaders agreed to place a priority on public health over economic and commercial interests, considering medicine as a public good in cases such as pandemics. The South American Council for Health has already begun to take initiatives in fulfilling these goals.

The work of the South American Defence Council, another established agency of UNASUR, was also reviewed. This body has already started to map out policies for military cooperation, humanitarian action, peace-keeping operation, education and training. It may be possible in the future for this Council to expand its role by developing initiatives for the security of the immense biological, water and other natural resources of the huge Amazon region which encompasses seven South American countries.

Further, the summit established four new administrative councils:

· The South American Infrastructure and Planning Council, which replaces the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America (IIRSA), will complete the construction of infrastructure, transport and telecommunications networks, according to criteria of sustainable social and economic development and preserving the balance of ecosystems.

· The South American Counter-narcotics Council proposes to establish a coordination and follow-up process to address the drug problem, acknowledging the progress achieved by member countries, bilateral and multilateral commitments and the principle of shared responsibility.

· The South American Council on Education, Culture, Science, Technology and Innovation is a political authority to define, specify and promote policies and projects.

· The South American Council for Social Development has as its objectives the consolidation of means for social regional development; technical cooperation for the strengthening of systems of social protection and promotion; and the creation of a Social Development Fund.

In addition to these new councils, UNASUR, in its institutional consolidation process, will examine the advisability of establishing a council on human rights which will bring together existing regional resources in order to expand cooperation between member states on this crucial issue.

The leaders also reasserted UNASUR’s commitment to build a South American citizenship, by tackling the issue of migration on the basis of an integral and comprehensive approach and unrestricted respect for human rights of the migrants and their families.

With regards to climate change and environmental issues, the summit drew attention to Guyana’s proposals for the “Creation of Incentives to Avoid Deforestation”, and its “Low-Carbon Development Strategy”, currently undergoing national and regional consultations. The summit also noted the Ecuadorian initiative, “Yasuni-ITT”, aiming to develop alternative sources of income earning, to reduce the unsustainable tapping of natural resources and to optimise conservation of biological diversity.

And in a separate statement, the leaders reiterated their support for the rights of Argentina in the sovereignty dispute over the Falkland Islands (Malvinas) and urged the British and Argentine governments to resume negotiations in order to find the best peaceful and definitive solution to the dispute.

On the question of democracy in the hemisphere, the Quito Declaration condemned the June 28 coup in Honduras that removed President Manuel Zelaya from power. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, who chaired the summit called for Zelaya’s immediate and unconditional return to power and added: “There will not be recognition, by any means, of the rupture from the democratic institutional order. We will not recognise any election issuing from the de facto (Honduran) government.” This position was reiterated by Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, UNASUR’s incoming pro-tempore chairman.

Currently, two necessary actions are required of the member states. First, it is necessary for all member states to ratify the constituent treaty of UNASUR, which will enable it to enter into force. Member states were originally given an April deadline for ratification of the treaty, but this is still pending. The second action is for the election of a suitable candidate, preferably by consensus, for the post of secretary-general.

President Correa, as the pro-tempore chairman over the next year, has already proposed the creation of an observation commission for the electoral process in the region. He will, therefore, face the challenge to implement this important initiative, and apply strategies to fix the existing administrative details to steer the continental body firmly on the path of further integration.

Caracas, 27 August 2009

(The writer is Guyana’s ambassador to Venezuela and the views expressed are solely his.)