Wide-ranging issues on agenda at 17th COFCOR meeting

“The Caribbean is connected with the international world but is still to be connected with itself”- T&T Foreign Minister

By Abena Rockcliffe

Yesterday saw the opening ceremony of the 17th meeting of the Council for Foreign and Community Relations (COFCOR) at the Guyana International Conference Centre, where the Minister of Foreign Affairs Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett, assumed the Chairmanship of the body.
COFCOR consists of Ministers responsible for the Foreign Affairs of Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Member States.
In his opening remarks, Caricom Secretary General, Ambassador Irwin LaRocque told the gathering, predominantly made up of diplomats, that the annual meeting is the opportunity for the Ministers of Foreign Affairs to look back and take stock of the multiple activities undertaken by the Community in the promotion and protection of its interests.

Minister of Foreign Affairs, Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett poses with Foreign Ministers and representatives after the opening ceremony

He said that it also provides the occasion to look forward to the prospects by analysing the trends, developments and events which shape the external environment in which Member States operate.
LaRocque pointed out that the review and analytical exercise takes on particular importance this year as the final touches are being put to the Five-Year Strategic Plan for the Caribbean Community.  That Plan, he noted, will lay out the Community’s priorities over the period as it seeks to focus on a few practical and achievable goals.
He said the meeting presents the opportunity for an in-depth discussion on “CARICOM Foreign Policy in the Changing Global Environment” in order to recommend foreign policy approaches and priorities.
Immediate former chair of COFCOR, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Trinidad and Tobago, Winston Dookeran, in his remarks, referred to last year when his country hosted the 16th meeting. The Foreign Minister said his country did its best but noted that already he noticed signs that Guyana surpassed all bests.
Dookeran said that last year’s meeting was centered on the fact that the ground was shifting and “we needed to pull up our socks.” He said however that this year’s agenda is bigger as the focus is moved from acknowledging the sand has shifted to building the pillars of foreign policy.
The Trinidad and Tobago representative pointed out that there is a big gap between the fiscal deficit and liquidity surplus that exists in the Region, and said that there is an urgent need to close that gap.
Perhaps one of the most impacting points that Dookeran made during his remarks is that “the Caribbean is connected with the international world, but is still to be connected with itself”. He said that that connection is absolutely needed as “We cannot afford to be left behind.”
Minister Rodrigues–Birkett, who was the final speaker, acknowledged the good work of her predecessor Minister Dookeran and said she hopes to maintain such standards during her tenure.
The Guyanese Minister said that the meeting is being held at a time when the Caribbean Community is undertaking an introspection of how the systems and processes of its integration movement can be strengthened.  Key to this development, she said, is a Strategic Plan which will address the areas to which the Community should give priority as it seeks to maximize its human and financial resources.
She pointed out that COFCOR had to be aware and ready to respond to changes on the international scene that would consequently require a repositioning of policies.  This has therefore been a central theme in several meetings.
But the Minister said that Guyana is now the venue where focus will be on the conduct of the Region’s foreign policy in a changing global environment.
“I am indeed looking forward to our own introspection, at the end of which I hope we will arrive at clear and practical actions that would reflect our adaptation in a rapidly changing world, and more importantly an approach that would lead to even greater coordination.”
In pointing out some of the priorities of COFCOR, Rodrigues-Birkett said the international community must be nimble so as to advance the climate change negotiating process to meet the 2015 deadline for a global agreement on climate change. She told the gathering that the Region continued to advocate that climate change represents the greatest challenge to the planet and moreso for this Region of small-island and low-lying coastal states where it is an existential issue.
“It is therefore in our interest to participate in the important upcoming meetings, including those convened by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change…For CARICOM, a key imperative is the building of resilience: resilience to climate change and environmental risk; and resilience to external economic shocks. CARICOM needs to remain fully engaged and to ensure that our priorities are duly reflected in the relevant outcomes.”
The COFCOR chairperson said that while many jurisdictions have recorded admirable performances with respect to some of the MDGs and continue striving to achieve sustained economic and social development, some Member States are constrained by high levels of debt and graduation from concessional financing and development aid. She said COFCOR will continue to advocate for the international financial institutions and the various world decision-making bodies to review arbitrary categorization of our small developing states as upper middle income countries using GDP per capita by adding certain vulnerability indices in order that a true picture of our economies is reflected.
Moving on to trade, Birkett pointed out that for most Member States and the region as a whole, the United States is still the largest trading partner in terms of value and volume of trade.   However, she said that it cannot be assumed that the current arrangements will remain sufficient and resilient.
“We have to engage and pursue initiatives to improve trade, including through the maximum use of the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA).”
In addressing the issue of “joint representation”, Birkett charged her colleagues that “If developed countries – with much more human and financial resources than we have – can pursue with each other shared space of diplomatic premises or, as in the case of the Pacific Alliance countries, establish measures in the area of consular assistance to benefit their nationals, then our small Community of nations must recognize the merit of adopting either these or similar options and of course we will be examining this in detail.”
She told her peers, “We must be prepared, to sacrifice short term individual gains in order for the overall region to benefit on the longer term.
In addition to Member states, the opening ceremony was attended by Ricardo Patino – Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ecuador and Murray McCully – Minister of Foreign Affairs of New Zealand.