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New Secretary General tackles UNASUR challenges

By Ambassador Odeen Ishmael - Posted May 30th. 2011

Almost eight months since the vacant post of Secretary General to the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) arose with the death of former Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, the position was finally filled when Columbia's Maria Emma Majia Velez, a former Foreign Affairs and Education Minister, was installed on May 10 in Georgetown at a ceremony presided over by Guyana's President Bharrat Jagdeo, the current chairman of the continental bloc.

But due to an unusual arrangement, the new Secretary General will serve for only one year before handing over the post to her successor, Ali Rodriguez of Venezuela, who will complete the second year of the two-year term. Rodriguez previously served as General Secretary of OPEC, President of the state-owned oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador to Cuba, and Minister of Finance. He is currently Minister of Electric Energy.

During the process of appointing a new Secretary General, the two nominees were submitted by their respective countries. To avoid a deadlock, the Council of Foreign Ministers of UNASUR met on March 11 in Quito where a consensus was reached on a proposal for the sharing of the two-year term. This was subsequently ratified by the South American presidents.

However, this arrangement raises concerns as to how much the new Secretary General can achieve in just a one-year stint, and whether or not her successor in the second half of the term will continue from where she would have left off.

During the March meeting, UNASUR's constitutive treaty and charter formally entered into force during a symbolic session at the site of the proposed headquarters of the organisation. So far, ten member-countries have ratified the charter which created UNASUR in Brasilia on May 23, 2008. Brazil and Paraguay are yet to do so.

At the Georgetown installation ceremony, the new Secretary General unveiled some duties which will include organising the fourth security and defence council meeting to reappraise its action plan and reaffirm the constituting values of South America as a zone of peace.

She noted, too, that the signing in April of a declaration to consolidate a solid, regional electrical integration process was encouraging, and acknowledged the crucial role UNASUR will need to play in addressing environmental issues, given the continent's prestigious biodiversity resources.

And as President Jagdeo added, Majia Velez's role will also involve forging a South American entity strong enough to give the continent a key role in decision-making on international issues, including the crucial question of UN Security Council reform.

The installation of a new Secretary General to UNASUR will now ensure the smooth coordination of activities and the strengthening of the organisation's capacity to service the work of the several councils and working groups in order to expedite the process of offering recommendations that can be implemented in the interest of the people of South America.

One immediate action plan to implement is the free movement of South American citizens within the continent. Since the free movement of people is integral to any integration movement, the member states have already agreed to accelerate the early entry into force of the agreement to facilitate the movement of citizens of the region without the need for visa and a passport, although some form of identification would still be necessary. However, some countries would still, as a matter of preference, require the presentation of a passport at the port of entry. Nevertheless, the visa waiver would represent a tangible demonstration of the desire of member states to forge a South American identity.

At the installation ceremony, President Jagdeo pointed out that the free movement of people would present the opportunity to work and establish businesses. As a result, he urged that member states should ensure that their social security and health care systems are geared to accommodate the needs of those who travel.

He also urged wise use of financial and human resources in the staffing of the UNASUR Secretariat and encouraged the use of technology in conducting the business of the bloc.

Of significance, he said UNASUR the Caribbean region could find common areas for collaboration, and pointed to the real prospect for Guyana and Suriname using their physical links with the continent to provide access to markets to both the Caribbean and South America.

Indeed, the new Secretary General has a full plate to handle. Already, she has participated in the extraordinary meeting of the organisation's Council of Delegates on May 24-25 in Guyana to discuss the structure and budget for the General Secretariat. With the entry into force of the Constitutive Treaty on March 11, more focus will now be placed on the institutional structure of the General Secretariat which will be located in Quito, Ecuador, where construction work has already commenced on the headquarters building.

This meeting was a follow-up to that of the Council on Social Development, also held in Guyana on March 30-31, to review the 2009-2011 Action Plan. This Action Plan includes the formulation of guidelines for the establishment of common social development policies among member states, as well as the creation of technical working groups in the field of social development and cooperation to reduce poverty in border areas.

Two other important activities will also engage her immediate attention. The first is the third joint summit of UNASUR and the Arab states in Peru during the final quarter of this year. This summit, originally planned for the beginning of the year, was postponed due to the political uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

The second significant event is the UNASUR summit itself, also expected to be held before year-end in Paraguay. There it is anticipated that concrete proposals will be presented to make the organisation more effective in inter-regional negotiations. The recent decision by Mercosur, one of the major economic groupings in UNASUR, to proceed with trade talks with the European Union without any involvement of the continental organisation actually sent a strong signal that the organisation still has not achieved its overall goal of becoming the predominant economic and political union in the region. This is certainly one pressing challenge that Secretary General Maria Emma Majia Velez will have to confront and attempt to overcome during her relatively short stint as UNASUR's chief public servant.

Kuwait, 29 May 2011

[The writer is Guyana's Ambassador to the State of Kuwait. He previously served as Ambassador to Venezuela, the USA, and the Organisation of American States. He writes extensively on South American political and economic issues.]
(The views expressed in this article are solely those of the writer and not necessarily those of the Government of Guyana.)

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