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UNASUR Constituent Treaty Propels South American Integration

by Odeen Ishmael
Guyana Journal, Hune 2008

CARACAS, 28 May 2008:- At a special summit in Brasilia on May 23 leaders of the 12 South American nations signed the constituent treaty setting out the legal framework of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). The treaty also establishes juridical mechanisms to propel active political coordination within the continental bloc.
Signing the constituent treaty were Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina; Evo Morales of Bolivia; Lula da Silva of Brazil; Michelle Bachelet of Chile; Alvaro Uribe from Colombia; Rafael Correa of Ecuador; Bharrat Jagdeo of Guyana; Nicanor Duarte Frutos of Paraguay; Alan Garcia from Peru; Ronald Venetiaan of Suriname; and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Vice-President Rodolfo Nin Novoa signed for Uruguay.
The special summit was originally scheduled for Colombia in March, but had to be postponed in the light of the Colombian cross-border raid on Ecuadorian territory on March 1, which killed a top guerrilla leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and 26 other persons.
Accession to the treaty is, according to the preamble of the document, “a decisive step towards the strengthening of multilateralism and the rule of law in international relations to achieve a diversified, balanced and fair world.”
The draft of the treaty was finalized at meetings of the UNASUR Council of Delegates in Cartagena (Colombia), Rio de Janeiro and Caracas earlier this year. It defines the organization’s administrative bodies as the Council of Heads of State and Government (the highest organ) to convene annually; the Council of Ministers of Foreign Affairs to meet twice a year; the Council of Delegates, (representatives of ambassadorial rank, to meet more frequently throughout the year); a rotating presidency; and a general secretariat manned by international civil servants drawn from the member nations, and headed by a Secretary-General elected for not more than two biennial terms. The official working languages of the body will be Dutch, English, Portuguese and Spanish.
The document also stipulates the setting up of a South American parliament based in Cochabamba, Bolivia, but a special protocol will have to be promulgated to enable its establishment.
The constituent treaty, which will come into force after it is ratified by nine states, emphasizes the general objective of UNASUR as “building, in a participative and consensual manner, an integration and union process among its peoples in the cultural, social, economic and political dimensions, prioritising political dialogue, social policies, education, energy, infrastructure, financing and the environment, among others, with a view of eliminating socio-economic inequality, to achieving social inclusion and citizen participation, to strengthening democracy, and reducing the asymmetries in the background of strengthening the sovereignty of States.”
But since all the member states may not be ready to accede to all the commitments of the Union immediately, the treaty gives consideration to the principle of “gradualism”, proposed by Suriname and Guyana, among others, during the negotiations. Thus, the preamble specifies that since South American integration is “flexible and gradual in its implementation . . . . each State may assume the commitments according to their reality.”
The treaty also notes that after the fifth year of its entry into force, other Latin American and Caribbean states can apply to be admitted as Associated States of UNASUR.
The genesis of UNASUR goes back to December 2004 when the 12 South American Presidents met in Cuzco, Peru, to establish the South American Community of Nations. But even before Cuzco, the Presidents held summits (from 2000) and set up various mechanisms aimed at continental integration. One significant mechanism is the Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America (IIRSA) which has already formulated an ambitious project list to boost infrastructural integration throughout the continent.
Then in April 2007, at the South American Energy Summit held in Margarita, Venezuela, the leaders decided to change the Community’s name to the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and to establish a general secretariat based in Ecuador. Rodrigo Borja, a former Ecuadorian president, was also named as the first Secretary General.
The organization’s institutional framework expanded in 2007 with the setting up of the South American Energy Council and a major financial mechanism, the Banco del Sur (Bank of the South), even though the latter is still not yet fully on-stream.
But the momentum suffered a setback with the resignation on the eve of the special summit of Rodrigo Borja, the appointed secretary-general. Media reports claimed he had earlier complained that some leaders did not support his vision of putting other regional trade blocs, including Mercosur and the Andean Community, under the UNASUR umbrella. But his resignation might have resulted because the constituent treaty did not provide the post with as much autonomy and power as he wanted. In addition, he was unhappy with the “gradualistic” approach to the integration process as stipulated in the treaty.
UNASUR brings together the 12 nations with a joint population of about 390 million and an annual GDP nearing 2 trillion dollars. The continent’s intra-regional trade amounted to more than US$72 billion in 2006, while its economy grew by 5.7 percent in 2007, mainly due to foreign direct investment which reached a record US$106 billion. And according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), the bloc’s economy will grow a further 4.7 percent this year.
After the signing ceremony, Chile took over the pro tempore presidency of UNASUR from Bolivia, since first-choice Colombia, citing differences with Ecuador and Venezuela, refused the position.
In assuming the position, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet was firm on the unifying role of the organization. “We want to show that Latin America is capable of speaking with a firm and strong voice and of building effective integration,” she said during the discussions.
She stressed the importance of concrete integration measures, especially in infrastructure, and reaffirmed the commitment of Presidents Lula da Silva and Morales to complete by the end of 2009 the highway linking the Brazilian port of Santos on the Atlantic with Arica and Iquique on the Pacific coast of northern Chile after crossing Bolivia.
Bachelet added that UNASUR must quickly embark into social programs for poverty reduction which could see the enhancement of financial and energy integration, the improvement of regional infrastructure, and cooperation in social policies, especially in the area of education.
Another matter discussed at the special summit was the Brazilian proposal for a South American Defence Council aimed at resolving conflicts and promoting military cooperation. While the proposal won wide support from the others, Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe expressed his opposition and emphasized his trust on the existing OAS defense mechanism. He said the “terrorist threat” facing his country did not allow for military cooperation at present, and explained that his opposition to such a Defence Council was due to the resistance of some South American countries to define the leftist FARC as a terrorist organization.
Nevertheless, a Colombian government statement shortly after declared that “Colombia does not oppose the creation of a working group to study the theme.” The meeting subsequently established a commission to examine the proposal and to issue a report within three months.
The current tensions among some South American nations pose the main challenge for UNASUR. Ideological differences exist: on the one hand, there is the strong left leaning pro-socialist group comprising Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and, to a lesser extent, Brazil and Argentina. On the other hand, Colombia is closely allied to the United States. In between, there are Chile, Guyana, Peru, Uruguay, Paraguay and Suriname. There are also long-existing border issues, but political optimists see these being pushed on the back burner with the advance of political and economic integration, which can also act to ease future political tensions.
In addition, quarrels between Ecuador and Colombia and Venezuela and Colombia continue to bubble over despite the peace agreement reached during the Rio Group summit in the Dominican Republic earlier this year. In an effort to ease the diplomatic tensions, Lula met with Uribe, Chavez and Correa before the summit commenced to help resolve their differences.
On the economic front, UNASUR will be faced with the challenge of attempting to unite two large existing regional free trade schemes, Mercosur and the Andean Community, and at the same time integrate Chile, Guyana and Suriname in this process.
But right now, its immediate task is to find a new secretary-general to manage the day-to-day affairs of the Union. President Bachelet will be consulting on this matter with her South American colleagues over the next three months and, at the end of this period, it is expected they will reach agreement on a likely candidate for this position.

(The writer is the Ambassador of Guyana to Venezuela. The views expressed are solely those of the writer.)

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