WASHINGTON, Oct. 11, 2016 — The United States and its partners in the Western Hemisphere have made tremendous progress in strengthening and securing the region, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said today in Trinidad and Tobago.
"We’re all in this hemisphere together, and when we plan and prepare together, we’re better at responding when disaster strikes," Carter said in Port-of-Spain at the 12th Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas.
While the global situation is complex, the Western Hemisphere is a "relative oasis of stability and freedom," he said.
"I know that doesn’t come freely, and I don’t take it for granted – it’s a credit to the efforts of the people in this room that our hemisphere is so full of bright opportunity," the secretary added.
Carter encouraged participants to "seize those wonderful opportunities that lie before all of us in the future." The leaders have an opportunity, he said, to shape the region's future and make it more prosperous and secure for all citizens.
The gathering of defense leaders from 34 Western Hemisphere nations was first held in in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1995 by then-Defense Secretary William Perry. The theme for this year’s conference -- the first to be held in a Caribbean nation -- is “Strengthening Defense and Security Cooperation in the Hemisphere in an Increasingly Volatile Global Environment.”
Carter Highlights 'Tremendous Progress'
Positive developments in peace and security, Carter noted, include Colombia making progress in ending the longest-running conflict in the hemisphere, and a number of countries taking part in peacekeeping missions in Haiti and Africa.
In addition, the region has made strides in its disaster response, Carter pointed out. For example, Chile and Mexico, he said, have been working with Central American nations to build capacity in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. The region stepped up to help in recent days as Hurricane Matthew struck parts of the Caribbean, Colombia and the United States, he said.
"Last week,” he said, “the U.S. military was quick to support our civilian U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID, standing up a joint task force and sending helicopters, engineers and other assets to help with relief efforts in Haiti." Other countries are responding as well, he said, noting Colombia, for example, sent its offshore patrol vessel "7th of August" to Haiti to help provide humanitarian assistance.
"All this represents tremendous progress – we’ve made our hemisphere more secure and grown stronger as partners," the secretary said.
Disasters like Hurricane Matthew show that many of the challenges the region faces, such as climate change, do not respect national or regional boundaries, Carter pointed out. "Whether it’s a storm, an earthquake or rising sea levels, such disasters can create an immense burden on our militaries and security forces, highlighting the need for increased cooperation," he said. That is why the United States supports the proposal for the Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas to develop a hemispherewide approach on multilateral disaster response, he added.
The United States also supports institutional reform to help make the militaries more capable in their missions of defense and security. The United States already partners with several countries on defense reform and plans on expanding the effort, he noted.
"That will enable our militaries to operate together more effectively, making our hemisphere stronger and more secure," Carter said.(Follow Lisa Ferdinando on Twitter: @FerdinandoDoD)