Human safety and environmental security in the Caribbean Basin
A motley crew of eighty-eight undocumented and unwelcome European immigrants landed on an island in the Bahamas here in the Caribbean 525 years ago on 12th October 1492.
The trickle of interlopers turned into a torrent. The Caribbean, in succeeding years, witnessed the establishment British, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Spanish, Swedish and American colonies and properties making it the most balkanised sub-region on earth.
Warfare between European states was fought invariably and vicariously in the Caribbean not only by regular armies and navies but by irregular bands of buccaneers, corsairs, pirates and privateers.
The Caribbean became known as the ‘cockpit of Europe’ – a theatre of European conquest and conflict which spawned numerous distinct jurisdictions. The ‘hot’ wars of the colonial era turned into the ‘cold’ war during which the Caribbean became a zone of conflict, this time mainly between the USA and the USSR.
The Caribbean, today, is the theatre of another war – more deadly and devastating than any colonial conflict. It is a war of unprecedented wind-speeds which could reach 200 kph and of unimaginable volumes of water – dumping 100 cm of rain in four days as Harvey did on Houston.
Hurricane Harvey was followed by Irma, another tropical storm, twelve days later, which devastated the Caribbean island of Barbuda and by José, Katia, Lee, Maria and Norma, of varying intensities.
Environmental hazards – cyclones, hurricanes, tornados or typhoons – threaten human safety. They result in death and destruction comparable to any battlefield of conventional warfare.
They can be costlier than some wars. The cost of the recovery effort from Harvey is estimated to exceed US$100 billion, a sum that is one sixth of the military budget of the richest armed forces in the world – those of the United States of America.
The Caribbean Basin is vulnerable to tropical storms which can be disruptive of states’ stability and security. Hurricanes gather strength and thrust from warm water. They originate in the warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of West Africa, and move westwards to the Caribbean.
Climate change – global warming – can cause an increase in the temperature of the oceans. The islands and coastlands of the circum-Caribbean lie within the westward path traversed by tropical storms. There is a correlation between global warming and extreme tropical storms.
The Caribbean Basin is a complex geographical and geopolitical region. It is vital to the USA’s strategic interests and, conversely, the USA is vital to the Caribbean’s economy and security. Scholars and analysts, from the time of the promulgation of the ‘Monroe Doctrine’ in 1823, have referred to the Region, variously, as the ‘American Mediterranean’, America’s “fourth frontier,’ or the ‘mare clausum’.
The USA, as part of its strategy to ensure the security and stability of its ‘fourth frontier’, has always paid attention to the need for security cooperation with the Caribbean. Interest in the former British West Indies, was evinced in the landmark ‘1940 Destroyers for Bases Agreement.’ There is need, now, to extend cooperation in environmental security.
Traditional security threats to the Caribbean Basin – such as invasions, interventions and insurrections – frequently involved the use of military force. The rise of non-state transnational threats expanded the spectrum of security threats to include narco-trafficking, human-trafficking, gun-running, money-laundering and terrorism.
Climate change has emerged as a major international threat, requiring a reconceptualization of our understanding of security to incorporate environmental hazard that threatens both human safety and state security.
Disasters disrupt governance, damage property and infrastructure, cause death and lower citizens’ quality of life. Environmental hazards are threats to the national security of states, whether they are rich or poor, large or small, island or mainland.
Rising sea levels caused by global warming threaten many Caribbean small-island states which are most vulnerable to environmental hazards because of their geographical size and location and lack of economic resilience.
Global warming which precipitates rising sea levels and extreme weather patterns threaten the economic assets of the small-island developing and low-lying coastal states of the Caribbean.
The consequences of natural disasters have the potential to create instability in small states. These conditions can be conducive to the weakening the security of states, exposing them to the perils of penetration by terrorism and other transnational crimes.
The majority of the states of the Caribbean are small-island developing and low-lying coastal states. The threat to human safety from rising sea levels, warming of the oceans and tropical storms is high because most of the populations and economic activities are concentrated close to the coast.
Natural disasters, as a consequence, exact huge costs on the economies of the small states of the Caribbean. It is estimated that annual losses as a result of natural disasters are about US$ 3 B.
– Hurricane Ivan, 2004, killed 93 persons in the eastern Caribbean, caused damage exceeding US$6B and flattened much of Grenada;
– Hurricane Hugo, 1999, killed 107 persons;
– Hurricane Gilbert, 1988, cost 65 per cent of Jamaica’s GDP and damage to more than 100,000 homes.
The increased frequency, ferocity and intensity of hurricanes across the Caribbean Sea promise more death, damage and destruction. The Region requires a new regime of international cooperation to make it secure and safe.
Small Caribbean states, on their own, cannot respond, in an adequate and timely manner, to the scale of death, damage and destruction caused by most natural disasters. The Region requires international cooperation to promote human safety.
The United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) has acquired the equipment, the expertise and the experience to respond rapidly to natural disasters and has been on the front line in responding to natural disasters.
SOUTHCOM, most often, has been among the first responders to natural disaster. This responsiveness points to the need for relief to become an integral part of security cooperation in the Caribbean Basin.
SOUTHCOM must continue to work with regional organizations such as the Caribbean Emergency Disaster Management Agency (CEDEMA) to help the Caribbean build capacity to respond to disaster.
Our common interests in the ‘Basin’ require that the region become a zone of peace and a zone of development rather than a zone of disaster. The ‘hurricane era’ has made security cooperation, rather than strategic confrontation, a necessity to protect the Region’s vital interests.
It is in our common interest to recognise that the stability of the Caribbean Basin is imperilled by environmental hazards; that these hazards are the greatest threats to citizens’ quality of life and that they undermine the stability of Caribbean states and the United States.
Security cooperation between the USA and the Caribbean has been pursued, principally, through the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI). Security cooperation must be re-engineered to take into account the interests of the special environmental needs of small-island developing and low lying-coastal states.
I addressed the UN General Assembly on 20th September, calling on all nations to fulfil the promise of the UN Charter and the theme of the General Assembly “…to focus on people, to strive for peace and to protect the planet.”
I address the Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies, today, calling on the faculty and staff to provide the intellectual leadership to promote new era of security relations in the Caribbean Basin aimed at “…protecting our people, perpetuating peace and preserving our corner of the planet from disaster.”
I thank you.