July 30, 2002
It came as no surprise earlier this month, as CARICOM ended its 23rd meeting of the Conference of Heads of Government in Georgetown, that the issue of Venezuela's occupation of Bird Rock off the coast of Dominica would have evinced nothing more decisive that a "commitment to the development of an appropriate strategy....in the interest of the OECS countries". Bird rock became an issue at the 22nd meeting of the Conference in Nassau last July when the Heads "declared their support for the maritime integrity of the affected Member States of the Community..." The issue was referred to the Council for Foreign and Community Relations (COFCOR) at its meeting in Castries in May this year when the Region's Foreign Ministers, paraphrasing their Heads, "...declared their support for the maritime integrity of affected Members States...", etc.
Although COFCOR did agree that there was need for further legal and technical work to be done, it seemed evident that, notwithstanding the economic and strategic importance of Bird Rock to the OECS, there was no mechanism for doing such work quickly. After all, the issue is not one year old but, perhaps twenty-five. The handling of the Bird Rock dispute raises questions about the role CARICOM could be expected to play in other maritime controversies such as between Guyana and Suriname, or Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago, for example.
The need for a Caribbean regional security regime to deal decisively with inter-state conflict was evident even before the establishment of CARICOM with the signing of the Treaty of Chaguaramas in 1973, but concrete steps have never been taken to create an effective mechanism despite the real threats to the security, sovereignty and stability of Member States.
The 'worst case scenario' for the already balkanized archipelagic region has always been the threat of secession of outlying islets and this is precisely what happened with the secession of Anguilla from St. Kitts-Nevis in 1976. That crisis was precipitated by the determination of 6,000 Anguillans to secede from St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla. A conference among the four independent states at that time - Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago - and including St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla, Anguilla itself and the United Kingdom, agreed to put an end to the secession and, among other things, to set up a peacekeeping force drawn from the four Commonwealth Caribbean States. The force never materialised, however, and the entire plan was abandoned when the Jamaican Government withdrew from the agreement. The rest is history. The UK eventually intervened with paratroopers and policemen, without Caribbean participation, and the separation of Anguilla from St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla succeeded.
In the case of Venezuela's aggression against Guyana, the 8th Conference of Heads of Government in Georgetown in 1973, even prior to the formal creation of CARICOM, endorsed a 'Scheme for Mutual Assistance' but, like the Bird Rock issue, this idea languished for nine years until it was taken up by the Standing Committee of Ministers responsible for Foreign Affairs, the forerunner of COFCOR, for a further four years. Thereafter, it never seemed to have reappeared as a substantive issue before the Heads of Government until the Muslimeen insurrection in Trinidad and Tobago in 1990. Then, again, CARICOM's Heads at their 11th Conference in Kingston committed themselves "to the establishment of a regional security mechanism" and decided to set up a committee "to look into the matter and report before the 12th meeting of the Conference". Even prior to that crisis, Trinidad and Tobago received no assistance from other Commonwealth Caribbean states when its Defence Force mutinied in 1970; nor did Grenada receive help when its government was overthrown in 1979.
Today, the OECS should expect no material Caribbean support for its claim to Bird Rock and it should be clear, after nearly 30 years, that the problems of Caribbean security are unlikely ever to be solved by ad hoc responses and ministerial committees, particularly COFCOR. The Caribbean Community's apathy towards helping its Member States in distress contrasts with its alacrity in participating in USA-led military operations such as 'Urgent fury' in Grenada and 'Restore Democracy' in Haiti.
It is a sad indictment of Caribbean independence that the Community has never been able to play a practical role in safeguarding the security of its Member States and their peoples. The only effective mechanism to be established over the past 30 years has been the Regional Security System (RSS) which survives and thrives only because of the overwhelming support given to it by the UK and USA, its creators.