By VASANT BHARATH
Is the Rio Treaty still relevant?
Is this post-war 1947 hemispheric pact serving its stated purpose and is it beneficial to Trinidad and Tobago?
Could this country arbitrarily declare it is not bound by a resolution of the agreement?
The most effective way to answer those relevant questions is to appreciate the historic purpose of the treaty, which Trinidad and Tobago joined in 1967.
The core principle of the accord is that an attack on one member is considered an assault against all.
The pact promotes mutual assistance if the peace of the western hemisphere is threatened.
In other words, the Rio Treaty was set up, in 1947, as a defence body, heavily influenced by the United States in an era when that country feared strategic military threats.
Harry Truman was President of the United States, and in the immediate years after World War 11, there were anxieties over the Panama Canal and other crucial interests in Central and South America.
Two years earlier, the ideals were established in the Act of Chapultepec, which stated that “the new situation in the world makes more imperative than ever the union and solidarity of the American peoples.”
The agreement was signed after an inter-American defence conference in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, hence the sobriquet Rio Treaty.
The Inter-American Treaty for Reciprocal Assistance – to give the treaty its full name – was the first of several mutual defence agreements the US initiated around the world.
Trinidad and Tobago is one of only two countries – the Bahamas in 1982 was the other – to join the Rio Treaty after securing political independence.
Within its first few years, and at the height of the Cold War, several Latin American countries became concerned about the military interventionist style of the US.
Over succeeding years, some countries denounced the railroading of the treaty by the US for its domestic security.
The American sanctions against Cuba upset some signatory countries.
Things turned sour in 1982
Things turned sour in 1982 when the US-supported Britain in the standoff against Argentina over the disputed Falkland Islands.
The Americans rationalised its backing for Britain, but some commentators of the era argued that the treaty lost its influence over that issue.
After the September 11, 2002 (9/11) terrorist attack on its soil, the US invoked the accord, leading to criticism.
Mexico served the requisite two-year notice of its intention to withdraw from the treaty and did so in 2004, grousing that there was a need for a new pact.
In a major development, four Bolivarian countries, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador, all led by leftist governments, demitted the group in 2012.
A few years earlier, the Union of South American Nations was created as a regional security council.
It became apparent that the Rio Treaty was not serving its original objective and that the US was exploiting the accord for its security agenda.
Some members declined to provide tangible support to the Americans in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The united purpose that had inspired the establishment of the agreement a generation earlier, had become diffused, and Latin American leaders spoke out publicly at international conferences.
The concord had lost its raison d’etre, some argued.
Still, 16 of the 19 member countries supported a vote last September to utilise the treaty to impose economic sanctions against Venezuelan leader Nicholas Maduro and his regime.
The overwhelming support for the measure revealed strong hemispheric opposition to the contentious Maduro administration.
Uruguay opposed the motion.
Trinidad and Tobago abstained.
Cuba was absent.
Clause 20 of the treaty states that “decisions … shall be binding upon all signatory States which have ratified this treaty, except that no State shall be required to use armed force without its consent.”
This country was, therefore, bound to honour the September 2019 decision despite its abstention
A clear breach of the group’s decision
Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley’s hosting of Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodriguez was a clear breach of the group’s decision.
Flouting of the resolution inevitably prompted queries about whether this country had quietly resigned from the treaty.
This was later dispelled by Dr.Rowley, who said: “We have taken no such decision and we have told no one.”
How, then, could Foreign and Caricom Affairs Minister Dennis Moses insist that T&T is not bound by decisions of the treaty?
Moses was adamant that this country “is not bound by these recent decisions of the Rio Treaty, inclusive of the travel restrictions imposed (upon) the Vice President of Venezuela.”
He reiterated: “Trinidad and Tobago reserved its right not to be bound by the resolution…”
By what leap of reasoning could the Minister expound that position?
How could a sovereign Foreign Minister randomly decide not to honour a decision of a group of which his country is a confirmed member?
Is this a new measure of the foreign policy of this Government and the diplomatic example it is setting for other regional territories?
A low point in this country’s foreign policy
The move is as cavalier as it is bewildering.
By that rationale, could Trinidad and Tobago be expected to sidestep decisions of Caricom, the Organisation of American States (OAS), the United Nations and other international agencies of which it is a member?
Is this an indication that T&T is siding with the much-criticised Maduro Government, and thus abandoning its long-treasured non-aligned stance?
The fact that US Ambassador Joseph Mondello felt compelled to remind T&T of its obligations to the Rio Treaty is an embarrassing diplomatic blow to this country.
Then, there was National Security Minister Stuart Young’s bizarre assertion that Mondello did not use the word “breach” during their discussion.
The respected Reginald Dumas and Martin Daly were correct to ask: “What other than a breach could he have possibly meant?”
Regrettably, the issue is a low point in this country’s foreign policy and adds to several baffling decisions, including the 2018 vote against an OAS waiver of fees for hurricane-hit Dominica.
The Rowley administration must be reminded of the critical importance of considered and responsible foreign policy, especially during a period of growing military tension in our region.
Trinidad and Tobago’s breach of the Rio Treaty is unacceptable.
The awful decision to double-down on the reckless decision makes a bad move even worse.