The return of governments committed to the cause of integration in Latin America is once again putting the issue at the center of the political debate in the region. There has been talk, in recent months, of the possibility of reviving the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) following a half decade of inactivity and seven governments leaving the organization between 2018 and 2020. In particular, the prospect of the victory of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil’s October 30, 2022 presidential elections is fueling speculation about the likelihood of a relaunch. With the notable exception of Jair Bolsonaro’s government, Brazil has been seeking to foster South American integration for decades.
This study analyzes (1) UNASUR’s legacy, its successes, mistakes and vulnerabilities; (2) UNASUR’s current legal situation and the status of its founding members in relation to its treaty; and (3) the reforms that should be carried out to ensure the long-term sustainability of this integration project.
UNASUR emerged from several years of efforts to establish a South American regional body. The South American Community of Nations was finally created in 2004, and was renamed “UNASUR” in 2007. In May 2008, the presidents of South America gathered at a summit in Brasilia and signed the Constitutive Treaty of UNASUR (henceforth, the “UNASUR treaty”), which entered into force in March 2011, six months after its ninth parliamentary ratification. Between 2009 and 2011, the legislative branches of each of the 12 South American countries ratified the UNASUR treaty.
The essential purpose of UNASUR was to provide the South American subcontinent with greater integration and to achieve a convergence between its two main subsystems: the Atlantic-Southern Cone and the Andean-Pacific region, historically poorly interconnected. UNASUR sought to build its own regional governance in almost all areas of public policy, to promote connectivity among its members and the pooling of national capacities for regional development, and to consolidate a more cohesive regional bloc capable of projecting itself effectively at the international level.
The first years of UNASUR’s existence were marked by an impactful presidential-style diplomacy, wielded in particular in defense of democracy and institutional stability in its member states. UNASUR also played an important role in lowering tensions between some of its members.
Progressively, UNASUR began to deploy some technical capacity. Twelve sectoral councils were established at the ministerial level to facilitate cooperation and policy articulation in the region. Several councils, such as the South American Defense Council and the South American Health Council, among others, began to build an important policy agenda, with the establishment of long-term projects and objectives.
UNASUR was, however, unable to transcend this incipient stage of its consolidation. With only a few years of existence and insufficient institution building, it suffered blows that ultimately resulted in its abandonment and paralysis.
Between 2017 and 2019, in the context of a radical change of the dominant politics of the region, there was a lack of consensus among member states on nominating a new secretary general, which served as a catalyst for several governments to leave the organization. In 2018, five governments suspended their participation, despite the absence of a relevant provision in the UNASUR treaty. Between 2018 and 2020, seven of UNASUR’s twelve members denounced the treaty and left the organization.
Today, UNASUR is inactive and paralyzed. However, the 2008 UNASUR treaty remains in force for the members that have not denounced it, and the organization continues to have juridical status at the international level. As long as at least two states remain UNASUR members, the organization and its treaty will continue to be in force. As a result, and pending the necessary political will, there is no legal impediment preventing UNASUR from being relaunched by its members.
Our analysis of the current juridical situation of the 12 founding members in relation to the 2008 UNASUR treaty reveals the following:
In fact, the seven countries that left UNASUR (Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay, and Uruguay) failed to engage in any effort to reach an agreement, a stipulation inherent in multilateral treaties. Bolivia objected to these unilateral denunciations and called for dialogue. In 2019, Uruguay also demonstrated a willingness to resolve the problems that had arisen within the organization. The seven denunciations did not comply with the provisions of the UNASUR treaty on political dialogue (Article 14), on the settlement of disputes (Article 21), or even on the procedure for amendments (Article 25).
Moreover, public international law, including the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, protects the stability of treaties and stipulates that their interpretation must favor their preservation.
As a result, we contend that the numerous irregularities in the denunciations of the UNASUR treaty by these seven states open the possibility for activating a dispute settlement mechanism. This could allow for a collective solution that remedies the irregular process.
A new UNASUR will undoubtedly require important institutional and normative changes. These should be designed to ensure that UNASUR is a more sustainable, effective, and resilient organization, capable of withstanding the political and ideological shifts that characterize the region and of guaranteeing the continuity of integration in the long term.
To this end, several design flaws that hindered the work of the nascent organization and precipitated its downfall should be corrected. We have therefore included, in an annex, some proposed reforms to the UNASUR treaty.
UNASUR was marked by presidential diplomacy, which yielded important results in terms of preserving the region’s stability. In organizational terms, UNASUR’s presidentialism resulted, especially in its early days, in what has been labeled “pro tempore multilateralism”: a practice whereby states take turns heading an organization, generally for a period of one year, during which the foreign service of the country holding the pro tempore presidency assumes the central bureaucratic role within the organization.
Pro tempore multilateralism can be effective at the outset: it cuts costs at a stage when the fledgling organization still lacks much to show. But in the process of handing an international organization over to a new bureaucracy every 12 months, much institutional memory is lost. In the long term, it is essential to rely on a technical body that is wholly dedicated to the organization’s consolidation, that develops expertise in key areas, and that is accountable to all member states.
Presidentialism, in the absence of strong intergovernmental bodies, also meant that UNASUR was highly vulnerable to the pendular swings of national politics. The wave of progressive governments elected during the first decade of the century was followed by a wave of governments with low levels of commitment to regional integration. The latter did not face major institutional obstacles when making decisions that weakened the organization.
We therefore suggest normative changes that could help ensure the future consolidation of the organization and of its general secretariat.
Article 12 of the UNASUR treaty establishes that all UNASUR decisions are to be adopted by consensus. The consensus rule, virtuous in its intention to respect the will of all governments and not exclude any states, nevertheless sealed an important foundational weakness: it granted a de facto veto power to each member state at every level of decision-making. This allowed any member to block proposals or the appointment of secretaries general supported by a clear majority of members. This played a major role in deepening UNASUR’s paralysis.
The consensus rule should therefore be reconsidered. At the very least, the organization should be steered toward a hybrid model of decision-making, so that the consensus requirement does not apply to every decision-making process within the organization. Some decisions could require unanimity; others could be made by majority vote, with a hierarchy of decision-making methods similar to those of other international organizations.
UNASUR must be relaunched with a strong emphasis on the need to resume what is known in South America as “convergence,” a gradual fusion of several regional bodies, particularly between the Andean Community (CAN) and the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR), as well as other regional organizations.
A situation whereby UNASUR member states once again change their minds about membership in the organization should be avoided at all costs. Concrete incentives are needed if the organization is to prevent future boycotts or attempts to destroy it. A greater emphasis on convergence, including regarding trade rules, could provide an important incentive for some business sectors that did not originally accompany the process of consolidating UNASUR with any particular enthusiasm.
Adding a trade agenda to UNASUR could help consolidate a long-term political pact so that commitment to the construction of a South American regional space, its institutions, and its autonomy is not constantly questioned or betrayed.
The creation of the South American Community of Nations in 2004, which changed its name to UNASUR in 2007, sought precisely to facilitate — and go beyond — a convergence between the CAN and MERCOSUR. This yearning for a more cohesive South America, which predates the wave of progressive governments of the 2000s but was actively pursued as never before during the “Pink Tide” period, can and should become a national interest that transcends political swings from left to right in the various states of the region.
Another important incentive for states to commit to South American integration could be the establishment of a common currency and a common payments system for regional trade. This would be in addition to member states’ national currencies — a mechanism comparable to the European Currency Unit, better known as the ECU, before the advent of the euro. Such a currency, which in concept is often referred to as the “sur,” would be issued by a new Central Bank of the South.
A regional currency would greatly contribute to South America’s consolidation as a regional bloc. The region needs to climb the international monetary hierarchy, which is currently headed by the US dollar, followed by the currencies in the Special Drawing Rights basket (euro, British pound, renminbi, yen) and then by the currencies that have swap lines with the US Federal Reserve. This study includes considerations on how such a currency could be created.
There is often talk of possible alternatives to UNASUR. In particular, there is frequent reference to the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). CELAC is undoubtedly a vitally important project, perhaps even the ultimate horizon for any process of regional convergence in Latin America. The great richness of CELAC is its diverse membership, which allows for a dialogue among Latin American and Caribbean actors beyond the control of the Washington-based Organization of American States (OAS). CELAC is also a fundamental expression of the Global South in the Western Hemisphere. As such, it should champion the interests of the Latin American and Caribbean peoples at the multilateral and global level and channel the region’s demands on issues of development, peace, global justice, climate change, etc.
However, CELAC lacks a constitutive treaty and its own institutionality, in contrast to the Constitutive Treaty of UNASUR. Moreover, the breadth conferred by the 33 members of CELAC prevents more concrete and binding agreements with common regulations, the confluence and homogenization of policies, and a true regional development agenda.
UNASUR, unlike CELAC, can move rapidly toward regional governance. Its smaller number of states and their greater levels of relative autonomy within the international system enables the organization to move faster toward both physical and normative integration.
CELAC was born in 2010 largely as a result of UNASUR and Mexico’s drive to transform the Rio Group into an international organization. UNASUR and CELAC are thus symbiotic, not mutually exclusive. A strong UNASUR will always be CELAC’s greatest asset: a support base committed to CELAC’s relevance, leadership, and success.
The second alternative often mentioned is the “MERCOSUR ampliado,” or “enlarged MERCOSUR.” MERCOSUR has expanded since its creation in the 1990s, and has diversified its objectives and activities since the Ouro Preto and Ushuaia protocols. But the Treaty of Asunción, MERCOSUR’s founding document, is still a trade agreement notified to the World Trade Organization under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade’s (GATT’s) Enabling Clause. The UNASUR treaty, on the other hand, is registered with the United Nations and encompasses a multidimensional understanding of regionalism that includes defense, security, democracy, human rights, development, infrastructure, energy, environment, connectivity, mobility, health, education, science and technology, culture, disaster management, etc.
There are also significant obstacles to the enlarged MERCOSUR incorporating the countries of the Andean-Pacific axis, especially given MERCOSUR’s tariff regulations. It appears unlikely that Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, or Chile, which are Associated States of MERCOSUR, will become full members in the medium term. And the CAN will certainly not incorporate the countries of South America’s Atlantic coastline.
UNASUR can play a central role in advancing the objective of convergence by building on the institutional strengths of preexisting organizations, especially given the difficulty and unlikelihood of the incorporation of the Pacific into the Atlantic subsystem, or vice versa.
Faced with an international system again marked by great power rivalries, especially between the United States and China, and in light of the great challenges of the twenty-first century, the Global South’s response should be the articulation of regional blocs that seek greater strategic autonomy and a renewed and updated nonalignment. Only the collective power of states can elevate South America’s demands at the international and multilateral level.
In economic terms, greater integration can also accompany a process of productive transformation and contribute to diversifying the productive specialization of South America, a region still largely dedicated to the extra-regional exporting of raw materials. Such integration and diversification is paramount if the region is to achieve greater levels of industrialization, and trigger more innovation and more technological and cognitive inputs in the supply chain, with, as a result, greater strategic autonomy and the generation of more income for the South American economies.
UNASUR has a treaty that offers a comprehensive and multidimensional framework for the region’s needs. The UNASUR treaty also responds to a vision centered on regional autonomy and rights. This constitutes a fundamental legacy and a crucial instrument that will be difficult to reinvent in the foreseeable future. No other regional organization opens up the range of alternatives and possibilities that UNASUR’s foundational charter offers.
For all these reasons, we believe that the region should take full advantage of the fact that the UNASUR treaty is still in force. We recommend that the organization be relaunched and that UNASUR’s founding members rejoin.
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