What is the South American Defense Council?

On a March 2008 visit to Washington, Brazilian Defense Minister Nelson Jobim announced an intention to create a South American Defense Council (SADC), a body “based on the principles of non-intervention, sovereignty and territoriality.” Jobim then toured the region to get support for the SADC initiative.

Despite doubts that countries like Venezuela and Colombia could agree on common defense and security goals, the Council’s creation was approved in December 2008, in an extraordinary summit in Brazil, where the Statute of the UNASUR SADC was signed.

The Statute defines the Council’s main aims as:

1. Consolidating South America as a zone of peace, a base for democratic stability and the integral development of our peoples, and a contribution to world peace.

2. Creating a South American identity in defense issues, incorporating the subregional and national characteristics that strengthen unity between Latin America and the Caribbean.

3. Generating consensus to strengthen regional cooperation on defense issues.

The SADC is made up of the defense ministers of UNASUR’s 12 country members, who carry out annual ordinary meetings. (UNASUR, the Union of South American Nations, is a regional cooperation body founded in 2008, the result of a process that began in 2004.) The Council has an executive body, made of the region’s vice-ministers of defense. The Presidency, charged with coordinating its activities, is exercised by the country that holds UNASUR’s pro tempore presidency – currently, Ecuador.

So far, there have been only two ordinary meetings of the SADC. The first, held in Chile, produced the Santiago de Chile Declaration (March 2009), which introduced several initiatives: to foster cooperation in defense issues; to overcome differences in military expenditure; to become a dialogue platform for conflicts between its members; and to coordinate every nation’s external security. The Declaration introduced a 2009-2010 Action Plan, based on four elements: defense policies and military cooperation; humanitarian actions and peace operations; defense industry and technology; and military education and training.

The IX Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas (CDMA), a regional dialogue process begun with heavy U.S. support in 1995, will take place in Bolivia in November. It will be interesting to note whether South American defense ministries elect to use the SADC framework to coordinate their positions at the CDMA. There is a possibility that, at the meeting, the SADC countries will propose transparency standards for defense expenditure and defense budgets — an issue of ever greater importance amid ever greater concerns about rising regional arms purchases.

As one of its goals in the “defense policies” area, the 2009-2010 Action Plan seeks greater sharing information about defense expenditures and economic indicators of defense. As a result, an Extraordinary Meeting of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defense of UNASUR took place on November 27, 2009. Participants signed a resolution establishing security and confidence-building measures (CBMs), with specific implementation measures and guarantees:

1.Exchange of information and transparency in defense systems. This includes the
creation of a network for:

  • the exchange of information regarding defense policies;
  • information on military forces: troops, weapons and equipment;
  • setting up an Information Bank of the UNASUR countries to register the transfer and procurement of equipment and conventional weapons;
  • A confidential mechanism of “notification and registration before UNASUR of the full text of the intraregional and extra-regional cooperation agreements in matters of defense and security once these are approved.” This goal appears to address the fears and tension created after the news about a defense agreement between Colombia and the United States were leaked to the press.

2.Exchange of information and transparency on defense expenditures. This includes initiatives “to report on defense expenditures from the previous fiscal year” and “to send the defense budgets of the last 5 years to the South American Defense Council on a gradual basis.”

3.Exchange of information and transparency about military maneuvers and exercises.

  • “a. to notify in advance, the bordering member countries and UNASUR about any intended military maneuvers, deployments or exercises at the borders, in a timely fashion … including the number of troops, location in respect to the borders, nature and amount of equipment to be used;”
  • “b. to notify UNASUR about the development of joint military exercises, whether with regional or extra-regional countries;”
  • “d. to establish communication mechanisms between military forces in the borders with the purpose of coordinating and informing about their activities.”

4. Interestingly, in the section on “Measures in the Field of Security,” the resolution reiterates the member countries’ “most vehement rejection of all ruptures of constitutional and democratic law and any attempt of coup d’état,” and “their determination not to recognize governments that emerge from coups d’état or that alter the constitutional law.” This is a clear reference to Honduras.

5. Under “Compliance and Verification,” the resolution proposes “to develop a voluntary mechanism of visits to military facilities with the purpose of promoting exchange of information and experiences related to border control strategies, methods and policies.”

6. Finally, UNASUR deems it important “to invite the government of the United States of America to a dialogue in relation to the strategic matters of defense, peace, security and development.” This meeting has not happened yet.

Following up on this, regional leaders at the second ordinary meeting of the SDC, in May 2010, approved the Declaration of Guayaquil. This document:

1. “Approved the procedures to implement the confidence-building and security measures”
agreed at earlier meetings.

2. Set up a working group, led by Argentina, Chile and Peru, “to develop a methodology to address technical and design elements of the system for measuring defense expenses in our countries … in order to promote the issue of transparency in defense expenses.”

Although we have yet to see concrete, tangible results of these declarations and action plans, it is worth highlighting the coherence and continuity in the objectives that the SADC is following. This generates expectations of success for the SADC in defense and security matters in South America and the rest of the hemisphere.

This is especially important considering political tensions in the Andean region, which have had so far some military, defense and regional security implications. The SADC at least generates a space for debate and dialogue between the countries of this sub-region, particularly Colombia and Venezuela. The upcoming IX CDMA in November will most certainly present a good opportunity for the SADC to prove the utility of its existence and work. We hope it does so.9