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Acting Secretary of Defense Remarks to Conference of the Defense Ministers of the Americas

Fellow ministers, good morning. I would like to thank Secretary Desbordes for hosting this important conference, and for Chile’s continued leadership in this hemisphere. My colleagues and I are honored to join you to continue the important work that began 25 years ago, when then-Secretary of Defense William Perry hosted the first conference bringing together defense establishments across the Western Hemisphere.

Our nations share common interests that transcend our differences, including humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and combatting transnational threats. Moreover, with our like-minded partners, we share common values such as human rights, democracy, and respect for the rule of law. 

The United States recognizes the importance of strengthening our alliances and attracting new partners, particularly at a time when the international, rules-based system that has brought security and stability to our hemisphere – and the globe – is under duress.

China and Russia continue their attempts to undermine the free and open order and exploit other nations to further their own interests, often through predatory practices and coercion. At the same time, problems posed by transnational criminal organizations, social unrest, natural disasters, and the global pandemic further endanger the peace and security we have all worked hard to build over the past two and a half decades.

That is why it is more important than ever for us to continue to work with our Western hemisphere partners to address shared challenges. This includes continuing to urge nations such as Cuba and Nicaragua, and the illegitimate Maduro regime in Venezuela, to return to democratic rule through free and fair elections, and end violence in their countries.

Given the themes of this year’s conference, I’d like to focus my remarks on our collective efforts to enhance humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, as well as the importance of strengthening cooperation to address transnational threats.

First, in the realm of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, we recognize that these challenges extend beyond borders, threatening the well-being of all our citizens.  This requires us to look for ways to work together across the region as efficiently as possible.

I applaud Chile’s leadership in this regard, particularly in their authorship of the Disaster Cooperation Mechanism – a tool that facilitates information exchange on humanitarian assistance and disaster response capabilities among CDMA Member States.

 For our part, I am proud to note that USNORTHCOM and USSOUTHCOM, under the leadership of General VanHerck and Admiral Faller, have executed 441 coronavirus relief projects in support of 30 nations in North, Central, and South America, and the Caribbean, with a total value of $30.4 million.

But, as you all know, the United States provides much more than pandemic relief.  Last year for example, we deployed the hospital ship COMFORT to provide humanitarian assistance and medical care to Venezuelan refugees. In late 2021, we will again deploy the COMFORT to the region to relieve pressure on our partners and increase their resilience.

Also, this October, we approved the USSOUTHCOM Health Engagement Assistance Response Team (or HEART) pilot – an aerial medical deployment focused on non-COVID patients in Central America and the Caribbean in urgent need of medical care.

And most recently, in the wake of Hurricanes Eta and Iota, U.S. Southern Command has completed 243 missions, saved 850 lives, and delivered over one million pounds of humanitarian assistance to our partners in the region. Working shoulder-to-shoulder with regional partner nations expands our collective abilities to save lives and reduce suffering.

Our hearts go out to those who have lost loved ones, homes, and their livelihoods caused by these natural disasters; and these events underscore the importance of our work together at this conference.

To maintain our collective focus on these efforts, the United States has offered to host the 15th CDMA Ad Hoc Working Group, and will support the Inter-American Defense Board’s annual table top exercise on this important topic. 

Next, we must deepen and adapt our partnerships to match the evolving threats faced by our nations. Several issues this year have illustrated the need for urgency in this effort. At the forefront was our battle against the coronavirus, with our militaries assuming a position on the frontlines by securing borders; supporting repatriation flights; and delivering food and medicine.

At the same time, we haven’t lost our focus on combatting the scourge of criminal organizations that foster violence and corruption. For example, since President Trump announced the beginning of U.S. Southern Command’s Enhanced Counternarcotics operations in early April, the United States and 20 regional partners have together disrupted or seized 216 metric tons of cocaine and 32 metric tons of marijuana, and detained 373 suspected drug smugglers. 

I am proud of the progress we’ve made on this front, but we must also do more to thwart resource predation by both state actors and criminal groups, which has increased this year.  Activities such as illegal mining, wildlife trafficking, and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing threaten economic and national security, and are detrimental to our pursuit of stability and prosperity.

Strong security institutions are key to building trusting relationships and meeting current and future defense challenges. Corruption, absolute impunity, mismanagement, and a lack of strategic long-range planning will only hold us back. We need to leverage our resources to share best practices and bolster our defense institutions, such as the William J. Perry Center and its work to deepen our defense cooperation.

Likewise, respect for human rights is a guiding principle in our military relationships throughout the hemisphere and is a fundamental component of a professional and legitimate military force. USSOUTHCOM has over two decades of experience in working with regional partners on strengthening their human rights programs under the auspices of the Human Rights Initiative (HRI).  And throughout the hemisphere – with few exceptions – human rights is now embedded in military doctrine, training, education, and above all, in our collective moral code.

Finally, before I close, I’d like to echo the sentiments raised by my colleagues regarding the 20th anniversary of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security. We recognize that a military is at its best when it is inclusive and representative of the society it defends; and when it accounts for the unique security needs of the entire population. That’s why the Department of Defense is committed to building a more diverse workforce at all levels, promoting equal opportunity for all, and ensuring we incorporate the perspectives of men and women into our plans, policies, and operations.

I am encouraged by the many efforts being championed on this front, and we will continue to work with our partners and allies to increase the meaningful participation of women in defense and security sectors, and promote their safety and security. Doing so will ensure that we leverage the full breadth of talent each of our nations provide to meet the security challenges of the 21st century.

Twenty-five years ago, Defense Ministers from across the Hemisphere met in Williamsburg, Virginia where we declared our shared goal of a collaborative, prosperous, and secure region – one where our close partnerships advance shared security interests regionally and globally. 

Today, the United States remains committed to those same principles that have brought peace and security to this Hemisphere – our neighborhood. And, as we look ahead to the next 25 years, we will continue to strengthen our partnerships and invest in new relationships that will advance our vision of a secure and prosperous Western Hemisphere.

If we can focus our efforts and work together in that spirit of cooperation, I am confident that we will meet this Hemisphere’s security challenges for generations to come.

Thank you.