Global Policy Forum

National Sovereignty?

Inter Press Service
December 23, 2004

US returns to its old doctrine of national security, but this time with a new name. If three, five, or 10 years from now, Latin America returns to the military dictatorships and "dirty wars"' of its all-too-recent past, analysts might find clues in the comments of US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's in the VI Conference of the Ministers of Defense of the Americas held in Quito, Ecuador on Nov. 16-21. The Quito meeting confirmed an evolution in US policy that has been underway since President George W. Bush declared his "war on terrorism"' after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon itself.

The purpose of the gathering was to erect a "new architecture" for continental security in which the armed forces, in Washington's view, would play a central role. Indeed, in remarks to his fellow-defense ministers, Rumsfeld even suggested that, given the challenges posed by 21st-century threats, it was time to re-think the separation of the armed forces from the police — a major reform pursued by U.S. and Latin American human-rights organizations as a way of asserting civilian control over the military and reducing abuses.

"Since Sep. 11, 2001, we have had to conduct an essential re-examination of the relationships between our military and our law enforcement responsibilities in the US," said Rumsfeld. "The complex challenges of this new era and the asymmetric threats we face require that all elements of state and society work together."

21st century threats

For almost two decades, the United States has urged Latin American militaries to move away from the Cold War "national-security" doctrines that resulted in so many abuses in the region. But last week Rumsfeld appeared to be preaching the virtues of reviving such an approach, perhaps under a new name, like "national sovereignty." The Pentagon chief included in the category of "enemies" faced by the region's armed forces a number of actors who normally would come under the jurisdiction of civilian authorities.

"The new threats of the 21st century do not recognize borders. Terrorists, drug traffickers, hostage takers and criminal gangs form an anti-social combination that increasingly seeks to destabilize civil societies," he said, further blurring the line between the roles of the military and the police.

During the drafting of the final communiqué, Rumsfeld's delegation resisted a Canadian move, backed by Brazil and Chile, to balance its anti-terrorism provisions with explicit references to international human rights and humanitarian law, according to Gastón Chillier, an Argentine lawyer from the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) who observed the conference.

"They were essentially saying, ‘(the fight against) terrorism is the priority for the region, and international human rights law is not a requirement in combating terrorism.' This is exactly the wrong message in a region where militaries used this philosophy during the dirty wars to commit gross human rights violations."

Fight against terrorism is priority

In another update of the national-security doctrine of the 1960s and 1970s, Rumsfeld also pushed for greater co-operation among the region's militaries, particularly in border regions where "enemies often find shelter." This reference has to do with Washington's interest in exercising more control, and even intervening militarily in the conflictive borders of Colombia and in the "triple frontier" of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.

"Strengthening sovereignty, and ensuring effective sovereignty over our national territories must be a fundamental goal," he said. "‘There is no one nation that can meet these challenges by itself; it is simply not going to be possible," he said.

The United States insisted that priority should be given to the "fight against terrorism." Nevertheless, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Venezuela thought it was most important "to fight poverty, the lack of democracy and corruption" to strengthen hemispheric security. "The cause of terrorism is not only fundamentalism, but also misery and hunger," said Brazil's Defense Minister José Alencar, who also called for world disarmament.

The Colombian and US initiative to create a multinational force to intervene in Colombia, where a four-decade internal war is taking place, was rejected. Washington is already taking part with heavy military and economic assistance to the government of President í?lvaro Uribe. This initiative included calling on the Organization of American States to draw up a list of groups and individual terrorists and insurgents in the region to impede them from obtaining visas and circulating in different countries.

Fighting terrorism with terrorism?

The head of the advisers of the Minister of Defense of Ecuador, Naval Capt. Jorge Gross Albornoz said "Colombia's problem is the Colombian people's problem. You cannot fight terrorism with terrorism." Meanwhile, Chile's Defense Minister Jaime Ravinet said "there is a spirit to support and cooperate with Colombia but not of intervening in its interior."

The Declaration of Quito — signed by all the continent's defense ministers, except Cuba — stresses the fact that "extreme poverty and social exclusion of broad sectors of the population also affect stability and democracy, eroding social cohesion and making the security of states vulnerable."

Nevertheless it states that threats like drug trafficking, illegal arms traffic, traffic and treatment of people and organized crimes which have a multidimensional reach "require an adequate hemispheric cooperation for their treatment."

"Only through bilateral, sub-regional and regional cooperation can we confront the traditional threats and the new threats," it said.

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