by Odeen Ishmael
On October 29, 2011, the Government of Guyana, after holding the annual rotating position of pro-tempore chair of UNASUR since November 26, 2010, handed over the gavel to Paraguay at the fifth meeting of the Council of Heads of State and Government held in Asuncion, the Paraguayan capital. During the year of Guyana’s chairmanship, the South American bloc made some strident advances in institutional building while continuing to make headway in gaining a firmer foothold on the world stage.
Significantly, Guyana in its chairing role, had earlier this year made a formal application for UNAUR to attain Observer Status at the UN General Assembly. This application was subsequently approved on October 22 by the General Assembly after the committee of judicial affairs unanimously approved the request. The new status now places UNASUR’s future engagement with the UN on a firm and sustainable footing allowing for an enhanced profile of the South American integration movement in the international community.
Actually, UNASUR had already started implementing actions in that direction. It should be noted that the organisation, in propagating South-South cooperation, has institutionalised, over the past five years, joint summits and ministerials with the African Union and the Arab League. Such close links with the African and Arab nations have since resulted in improving political understanding and cooperation. They have also led to a higher flow of exports to these areas from South America, with Brazil and Argentina being the main beneficiaries.
And more recently, on November 28-30, the first joint meeting of education ministers of UNASUR and the Arab League was held in Kuwait and adopted a plan to work together to provide scholarships and promote science and technical and language training in the two regions.
During Guyana’s one-year stewardship, there were also significant institutional advances within the South American bloc. On March 11, 2011, the foreign ministers met in Quito to celebrate the entry into force of the UNASUR constitutive treaty and discuss the appointment of a secretary-general. For this post, it will be recalled that two nominees (from Colombia and Venezuela) were submitted by their respective countries. To avoid a deadlock, the Foreign Ministers agreed on the sharing of the two-year term by the two candidates, and this proposal was subsequently ratified by the South American presidents. As a result, Columbia’s Maria Emma Majia Velez, a former foreign affairs and education minister, was chosen for the first year; Ali Rodriguez who has held leading posts in the Venezuelan government will take up the position during the second quarter of 2012.
With this administrative hurdle out of the way, the second meeting of the Council on Social Development and the twenty-ninth meeting of the Council of Delegates were held in Guyana during the period March 24-31.
The Council on Social Development reviewed the 2009-2011 action plan adopted by its first meeting in Ecuador back in 2009. This current action plan includes the formulation of guidelines for the establishment of common social development policies among the member states, as well as the creation of technical working groups in the field of social development and the promotion of cooperation in border districts, in the on-going effort to reduce poverty in those areas.
The Council of Delegates reviewed the activities of the various administrative Councils and working groups in order to provide guidance to the work being undertaken by these bodies in 2011. This meeting also examined a proposal by Guyana on the organisational structure and budget for the Permanent Secretariat currently being constructed in Quito, Ecuador.
These two meetings were followed by the formal installation on May 9 of the secretary general at a ceremony held in Georgetown, Guyana. Since then, the secretary general has commenced operations at a temporary location provided by the government of Ecuador in Quito.
In addition, considerable achievements have been made in the various Councils and working groups in keeping with the mandates of the Council of Heads of State and Government in accordance with the objectives established in the organisation’s constitutive treaty.
Among these significant achievements were the conclusion on May 27 in Quito of the agreement for the Centre of Strategic Studies, and the inauguration of the South American Institute on Health on July 25 in Rio de Janeiro.
Soon after, a review of the financial and economic aspects of UNASUR was undertaken at a meeting of the Council of Ministers of Finance and Economy and Governors of Central Banks in Argentina on August 12. Most of the issues discussed related to a mandate given to that Council by the heads of state to deliberate on an effective UNASUR response to the international financial crisis.
At the Argentina forum, a programme was approved to design a multilateral payments system which would encourage the use of local currencies, with the tendency to gradually replace the US dollar in regional trade. Three groups were also created to work on monetary policies, strengthening of trade, and expansion of the Latin American Reserves Fund Council, the aid mechanism for most of the members of the bloc should they face financial difficulties such as rapid balance of payments alterations.
Furthermore, decisions were taken for the creation of a regional development bank (the Southern Bank) and coordination in the use of central banks’ international reserves to protect the region from international financial volatility.
As part of the ongoing process aimed at strengthening the integration mechanism, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs met in an extraordinary session on August 26 in Guyana to examine and decide on some key issues on the regional agenda.
Among those discussed was the proposal by the agencies and electoral authorities of member states to create an Electoral Council of UNASUR, especially since the bloc had already received requests from Bolivia, Paraguay and Guyana for electoral observer missions. This proposal won unanimous acceptance and working groups comprising electoral authorities and government officials of member states were set up to examine the nature, structure and functioning of the Electoral Council as well as the criteria and norms for the mounting of electoral observer missions in member states.
The foreign ministers, in their deliberations, recognised the valuable work of the UNASUR Mission in Haiti and agreed to recommend to the heads of state the extension of the UNASUR-Haiti technical secretariat to allow for the continuation of the programme of activities, especially those related to institutional support, food security and housing. They also urged member states to comply with the agreed contributions to the solidarity fund, established in Ecuador in February last year.
The Guyana meeting also mandated the Council of Delegates to formulate concrete rules with respect to the structure and budget of the General Secretariat in order to streamline the institutional strengthening of the organisation.
And as further evidence of this institutional growth, the Electoral Council of UNASUR on November 29, 2011, participated as an observer mission in the Guyana general elections. By all indications, the mission carried out a successful exercise which surely will help to build experience for any subsequent electoral observation
The establishment and practical functioning of the Electoral Council can be regarded as a positive forward step by the South American bloc to promote and preserve, defend and advance the democratic process in the region. It is possible that in the near future, as the Council acquires more experience in observing elections within the bloc, it may be able eventually to mount similar exercises outside South America, as the European Union is already doing.
As Paraguay now takes the South American chair, the expectation is that there will be further consolidation of the administrative structure of the bloc in the year ahead. There is anticipation that the South American parliament in Cochabamba, Bolivia, will begin to take shape and that the member states will agree on the special protocol on the composition and functions of this body. Hopefully, too, by the end of Paraguay’s term, the new building housing the General Secretariat will be ready to accept a fully-equipped team of professional regional civil servants to handle the day to day administration of the organisation.
Kuwait, 12 December 2011
(Dr. Odeen Ishmael is Guyana’s ambassador to the State of Kuwait. He writes extensively on Latin American and Caribbean issues and is the author of several books including The Democracy Perspective in the Americas. The views expressed here are solely his own.)