Countries Devise Improved Response to Natural Disasters

Countries Devise Improved Response to Natural Disasters

By Dialogo
November 13, 2012

In May, I wrote in these pages that nations in the Western Hemisphere have entered a new era of defense cooperation. Last month in Uruguay, defense leaders from 28 Western Hemisphere nations met at the 10th Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas and demonstrated that broad and constructive defense cooperation is about more than just words.

For the first time since its founding in 1995, the conference produced a concrete agreement: We adopted a coordination mechanism to improve our collective response to natural disasters.

By taking that historic step, Western Hemisphere nations now have a formal mechanism for multilateral defense cooperation that will help save lives. We saw the urgent need for such an effective response mechanism after the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010. Western Hemisphere nations worked together to provide much-needed help, but lacked an effective way to collaborate in real-time and focus efforts where they were most needed.

Cooperation on Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief is part of a broader trend of nations in the Americas doing more to advance security in this hemisphere. A new Department of Defense Western Hemisphere policy statement articulates three ways in which we will support this trend and build stronger security partnerships in the Americas.

First, build strong national government institutions. We are committed to helping partners build the structures of government needed to address legitimate security challenges – particularly because it is often difficult to determine whether transnational threats are matters of defense or law enforcement. Military forces can be effective when employed in appropriate situations, but they cannot be a permanent solution. In many instances, law-enforcement institutions should have the lead, although they may need military resources to accomplish their missions. The United States can help partners bridge the capability gaps between armed forces and law enforcement in a way that respects human rights, the rule of law and civilian authority.

Second, coordinate our defense forces. The disaster-relief mechanism adopted by the ministers is the kind of shared action that produces shared benefits for all nations. As another example, this year U.S. Southern Command launched a multinational counter illicit trafficking effort called Operation Martillo. Through this effort, 14 nations are working together to deny transnational criminal organizations the ability to exploit transshipment routes for the movement of narcotics, precursor chemicals, cash and weapons.

Third, create forums to advance hemispheric cooperation. The purpose of multilateral mechanisms and institutions like the Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas and the Inter-American Defense Board is to achieve consensus on the direction of hemispheric defense collaboration. Ministers have now proven that nations in this hemisphere cannot only achieve consensus, but actually take shared action on issues of common concern.

Nations of the Americas are facing a number of important challenges that make security collaboration among Western Hemisphere nations all the more important. This collaboration must take place in new and innovative ways. It need not rely on techniques from the region’s past, like establishing permanent bases or having the United States assume the dominant role of defending others. Our goal is to work with defense and security partners to enhance their capabilities, effectively take shared actions, and deepen our understanding and mutual confidence through strong multilateral forums.

We also continue seeking to bolster our strong bilateral relationships in the region. In Colombia, our consistent and durable support has helped the Colombian state and security forces in their efforts against terrorism and narcotrafficking. Last month, I was pleased to launch negotiations in Peru and in Uruguay aimed at concluding defense cooperation agreements. These agreements will formalize our relationships and will facilitate cooperation that helps build stronger institutions.

Our neighbors in this hemisphere should know that the United States welcomes this new era of defense collaboration. All of the nations in this hemisphere face common threats: terrorism, narcotrafficking, organized crime, maritime rights and disputes, and natural disasters. To help address those threats, we stand with friends to advance peace and prosperity as true security partners. Our peace and freedom will continue to be assured by the strength of our cooperation and the sacrifice of our Armed Forces, which will be one of the keys to building a strong hemisphere for the 21st century.

*Leon Panetta has been U.S. Secretary of Defense since July 2011.