Media Center



November 15, 2018 - Washington, DC

Ambassador Anthony Phillips-Spencer, Permanent Representative of Trinidad and Tobago and Chair of the Committee on Hemispheric Security;

Brigadier General Stephen Lacroix, Director General, Secretariat of the Inter-American Defense Board;
Ms. Paulina Duarte, Director, Department of Public Security;

Mr. Roger Mark DeSouza, President and CEO of Sister Cities International;

Distinguished Permanent Representatives
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good morning,

I am honored to participate at this important session of the Committee on Hemispheric Security, focusing on humanitarian assistance and disaster response. We have already heard from various presenters regarding measures taken and lessons learned, and I appreciate the opportunity to add my voice and provide an overview of Inter-American activities on natural disasters.

Over the last few years, this Committee and many other political bodies at the OAS have been discussing this very critical issue, an issue that is of the utmost importance for the Americas. The OAS has played an important role in strengthening the Inter-American System’s capacity to respond to natural disasters. We continue to make progress towards advancing a more proactive and defined role for our General Secretariat in supporting the efforts of the Inter-American and UN Systems, the specialized subregional organizations –such as CDEMA in CARICOM, CEPREDENAC in SICA, and our Member States and Permanent Observers, as well as international partners.

We are making a determined effort to identify the strategic niches and the important roles where our organization can actually bring value added in the very complex situations when we are called upon to respond to natural disasters, and more importantly, to prepare for them.

I am confident that you are well aware of our ongoing efforts at the General Secretariat in advancing Disaster Risk Management as an integral component of all our regional and sustainable development programs and projects.
Throughout the 1990s, while the world was debating whether disasters were natural or not during the UN International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction, here at the OAS were already tackling disasters in all of our regional development programs and projects. As far back as 1991, the then OAS Department of Regional Development (DRD) published the document “Disaster, Planning and Development: Managing Natural Hazards to Reduce Loss.” This document was intended for use by government officials responsible for the formulation of public policy, as well as international development banks and international cooperation agencies.

That same year, we also published the manual “Primer on Natural Hazard Management in Integrated Regional Development Planning”, which is still used today as a technical reference for planners and policy-makers. In the early 2000’s, we supported the preparation of manuals for the design and implementation of Early Warning Systems in Central America.

Today, we continue to build strong and lasting ties with many of your agencies. For example, we work with the Argentine White Helmets Commission and FEMA in the United States, and maintain financial and technical cooperation with others such as, Brazil and Chile in providing training and scholarships in Disaster Emergency Management, Risk Management and Adaptation to Climate Change, and in building resilience of small and medium tourism enterprises in the Caribbean.

If you consider the high level of vulnerability of the Caribbean to natural disasters and that many of their economies are directly tied to the tourism industry, then it is logical that we should ensure that the infrastructure that provides for this industry enjoys the level of resilience required and that this infrastructure is safeguarded. Even after homes have been destroyed, we know that full recovery becomes even harder if the principal means of making a living is also destroyed. So focusing on ensuring that the tourism infrastructure is safeguarded against natural disasters, in addition to other measures taken to safeguard residences and other public
infrastructure, is imperative.

We all agree that we must invest in disaster prevention and mitigation, build more resilience to disasters and reduce the vulnerability of those most vulnerable. Yet, we also understand the increasing threats we face due to natural, technological and man-made hazards. As these threats intensify, so does the need to build capacity to manage these disasters and to facilitate international assistance. With more frequent and intense disasters, National emergency response agencies are unable to respond effectively which has led to system inadequacies and the need to call on international disaster assistance to fill the gaps.

Furthermore, national disaster response and security and defense agencies are strengthening collaboration and coordination mechanisms to optimize resources, as disaster response national frameworks and emergency operations plans are linked to national security and defense plans.

The same must be done here at the OAS as we move to a broader dialogue that integrates our efforts under one single objective, protecting life and physical integrity of our citizens, and building resilience for sustainable development. This broad objective highlights the interdependence among the four pillars of our organization, which are democracy, human rights, multi-dimensional security, and integral development.

However, all of our efforts to respond to the needs of our Member States in the event of natural disasters will remain very theoretic unless we can be very practical in identifying those very specific, very practical initiatives in which we can also deliver very quickly and respond in a very reliable way. We know that the Organization of American States does not have the resource base to mobilize huge quantities of assistance in the event of a natural disaster. But we also know that we have in-house capacity, convening power, and we are repositories of most valuable information. At a critical juncture in time, as we orchestrate the response to a Member State that is suffering from a natural disaster, we can bring these things that we already have in-house and give meaning to them, putting them at the service of the Member States.
Again, we must be very, very practical. We do not want promises and beautiful undertakings that at the end of the day do not contribute to alleviating the suffering of our people. That is our challenge; we must identify those very practical niches in which we can respond.

We, therefore, do not have to choose between proactive and reactive investments and actions. We need to continue to invest in disaster prevention and mitigation and in building more resilient societies and states. We must also utilize the existing instruments and mechanisms for technical cooperation and assistance available to the OAS and strengthen the capacity of our General Secretariat to facilitate international disaster response.

Again, we have the instruments in place; we know what we need to do. We need to determine what the practical ways in which we can intervene are. I keep using the word “practical” because that is the only way in which we will be able to make a true difference.

In this regard, the Inter-American Defense Board, in collaboration with our Executive Secretariat for Integral Development (SEDI), and its Department of Sustainable Development carried out a successful tabletop exercise last month aimed at strengthening capacities, means and coordination among and within disaster response agencies in the hemisphere. The exercise yielded valuable inputs towards the formulation of a proposal for facilitating disaster response as mandated by the 48th General Assembly.
I would like to recognize the invaluable support of the Pacific Disaster Center (PDC) who assisted the IADB in the preparation of the tabletop exercise as well as the SEDI team, and all the other organizers.

I am happy to inform that SEDI, as instructed by General Assembly Resolution 2961, has been working diligently on the aforementioned proposal to facilitate international response to disasters, which incorporate avenues to strengthen collaboration between Member States, Permanent Observers and other strategic partners. This is in an effort to make optimal use of the existing instruments and mechanisms of the OAS, the Inter-American system, and those of the sub-region, and to coordinate with the United Nations System and those of other international agencies.

We trust that once presented, the proposal will serve as the basis for dialogue that will lead to a reorientation of our existing mechanisms to be placed under a new, more responsive disasters response framework.

Ladies and gentlemen, as you can see from initiatives currently underway, the OAS Secretariat is poised to assume a new, reenergized approach to support the efforts of the Member States in advancing a more robust and coordinated multilateral cooperation for international disaster assistance. But we can only achieve success if we work together. It is my sincere wish that today’s presentations and dialogue will help us to identify our common challenges and develop coordinated approaches to tackling them.