by Maísa Edwards
When we think of international institutions, it tends to be a select few that come to mind: the UN, NATO, the IMF, and the like, as well as multilateral groups such as the BRICS and India-Brazil-South Africa Dialogue Forum (IBSA). Less well-known is the Zone of Peace and Cooperation of the South Atlantic (ZOPACAS). But how should the ZOPACAS best be characterised? Is it even a formal organisation, an institution, or a military alliance? None of its member-states belong to the G7, although three are now members of the G20. It is made up of a collection of countries, some large like Brazil and South Africa, some very small like Uruguay and Benin, at times with Left- or Right-leaning governments, and some that have shifted from one to the other since its establishment. The ZOPACAS membership currently stands at twenty-four, with three South American and twenty-one African nations, and four official languages: English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish. What these member states have in common, despite their differing individual and political characteristics as well as colonial legacies, is a shared ideal that brings them together—a shared approach to peace. So what is the ZOPACAS and why is it important for contemporary trends in global relations?
The origins of the ZOPACAS
The ZOPACAS was established on 27 October 1986 by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). Its founding Declaration, A/Res/41/11, has seven preambulatory and seven operative clauses. They detail the various commitments of the newly-created zone of peace. As well as being a zone of peace, a designated geographic area dedicated to the preservation of peace, the ZOPACAS can also be thought of as a nuclear-weapons-free zone (NWFZ). This is due to a stipulation of membership being that states must not be in possession of any nuclear weapons capabilities. As Ramesh Thakur explains, ‘A NWFZ is characterised by “four Noes”: no possession, testing, deployment, or use of nuclear weapons’. This is significant, given that the ZOPACAS was established during the final decade of the Cold War. There are several other treaties that also have these tenets as core ideals. These include the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT); the Treaty of Tlatelolco, which prohibits nuclear weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean; and the Treaty of Rarotonga, which establishes the South Pacific as a nuclear-free zone. The ZOPACAS can thus be viewed as part of a wider movement, led predominantly by countries in the South, towards disarmament and the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.
The commitments of the Declaration of the ZOPACAS, as described in A/Res/41/11, were centred principally around maintaining the South Atlantic as an area dedicated to peace and cooperation, ‘for the benefit of all mankind and, in particular, of the peoples of the region’. The Declaration also includes the need to remove the threat and presence of foreign military powers from the South Atlantic region, as well as maintaining a strong stance against the introduction and proliferation of nuclear weapons. It also condemned South Africa’s existing racist Apartheid regime and the country’s contemporaneous and illegal occupation of Namibia, with a clause stipulating an end to both as ‘conditions essential to guaranteeing the peace and security of the South Atlantic’. Advocacy for change in South Africa was a progressive step for the ZOPACAS to take, and was seen as crucial if the ZOPACAS was to be effective and live up to its name in practice.
When the ZOPACAS came into being, the three South American member states, Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay, had recently returned to democracy following lengthy periods of Right-wing military dictatorship. They were keen to strengthen diplomatic and defence relations with their neighbours in South America and across the Atlantic. In West Africa, however, democracy was far from the norm, and states such as Nigeria and Ghana were governed by military juntas, whilst Angola was ruled by a Left-wing MPLA (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola) government closely aligned with the USSR. Despite the differences in political leanings and forms of government, a shared ideological position informed their actions and those of other ZOPACAS member states to the extent that they came together to promote their interests in the South Atlantic. In straightforward terms, we are dealing with a delimited geographical space occupied by a collection of state actors that shared a common approach to peace and cooperation.
How did the ZOPACAS come about? The UNGA voting record for its establishment shows that one hundred and twenty-four countries voted in favour, eight countries abstained, and one country voted against. Amongst those voting in favour were the future ZOPACAS member-states, as well as the Cold War superpower the USSR and its fellow United Nations Security Council P5 member, the UK. The eight abstainers were the European NATO members France, Belgium, the Federal Republic of Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Portugal, and the Netherlands, as well as the then-rising Asian power Japan. The only opposing vote was cast by the US.
What motivated these abstentions? Whilst the fifth operative clause of the Declaration of the ZOPACAS stressed the need for an end to Apartheid and self-governance for Namibia, it also urged ‘the implementation of all United Nations resolutions pertaining to colonialism’. This may go some way to explain the abstentions of former colonial powers, particularly France, Belgium, and Portugal; after all, many member states of the ZOPACAS, including Brazil, Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Senegal and others are former colonies of these European powers. France expressed reservations that the Declaration provided ‘no adequate guarantees for freedom of navigation on the high seas…. [and that there was] vagueness concerning the limits of the zone concerned’. The Federal Republic of Germany articulated the same reservations. It is likely that the abstaining European powers, as exemplified by France and Germany, viewed the establishment of the ZOPACAS as a hindrance to their continued Eurocentric influence in the South Atlantic Ocean as well as in many of the countries of the region. This would reinforce their reluctance to support the establishment of a zone of peace from which they, as foreign military powers, would be excluded.
Why did the United States vote against the establishment of the ZOPACAS? Diplomatic records in the Itamaraty (Brazilian Foreign Ministry) archives show that the US had initially planned to abstain in the voting process, only to ultimately change course and vote against the ZOPACAS. The cable shows that the US demanded that Angola be cited in the Declaration as a threat to peace in the South Atlantic region, in addition to mentioning South Africa and its occupation of Namibia. Furthermore, the cable shows that the US also shared the same concern as France and Germany with regard to freedom of navigation. These themes encapsulated the competing ideologies at play in the wider late-Cold War context. At that time, the socialist government of Angola, led by the MPLA, was backed by the USSR. It is likely that the US viewed Angola as a menace and an unsuitable guest at the table to discuss peace in the region, not least since the country was also in the throes of a civil war. It is also conceivable that the US was concerned that the ZOPACAS would, in time, evolve into a Southern alliance, one that could eventually challenge NATO. The United States’ decision to vote against the ZOPACAS did not, however, hinder its establishment in 1986.
We can pause for a moment to recap on the external ideological context at the birth of the ZOPACAS: a certain Eurocentrism on the part of some former colonial powers with a history and influence in the South Atlantic region, leading to abstentions in the vote to establish the ZOPACAS; the existence of Apartheid-era South Africa, isolated from and at odds with its African neighbours; and the closing years of the Cold War, when superpower rivalry was apparent in the ZOPACAS vote and the Soviet Union actively supported one side of the civil war in Angola.
The ZOPACAS’ evolution after its establishment
The first ministerial meeting of the ZOPACAS took place two years later, in Rio de Janeiro in 1988. The twenty-two founding member states convened to discuss the commitments of the ZOPACAS and would continue to do so at a further six ministerial meetings: Abuja 1990, Brasilia 1994, Somerset West 1996, Buenos Aires 1998, Luanda 2007, and Montevideo 2013. Those founding members were later joined by Namibia and South Africa, following the independence of the former and the end of the Apartheid regime in the latter. South Africa’s decision to end its nuclear programme and decommission its small arsenal of nuclear weapons also opened the door to membership. It is noteworthy that South Africa is the only known case of nuclear reversal and has since become a major advocate for nuclear disarmament, although this is more the result of steps to end Apartheid under F.W. de Klerk rather than a direct result of the formation of the ZOPACAS. The country would later host the 1996 ministerial meeting in Somerset West and eventually become a leading ZOPACAS member. The Treaty of Pelindaba, which established Africa as a nuclear-weapon-free zone, was also signed the same year. A subsequent meeting took place in Pretoria in 1996, at which ambassadors from several ZOPACAS member states (Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Namibia, Angola, Ivory Coast, Gabon, Ghana, Nigeria, and Togo) as well as South African diplomats gathered to further discuss the protection of the marine environment, the denuclearisation of the South Atlantic, and combatting drug trafficking. What does this mean for the ideals of the ZOPACAS? In short: a steady change in focus.
The ZOPACAS is dedicated to preserving peace in the South Atlantic, particularly through the elimination of threats, including those posed by the presence of nuclear weapons. With the end of Apartheid in South Africa and the achievement of Namibian independence, two explicit threats named in the Declaration of the ZOPACAS had been removed. However, new issues were taking centre-stage with an emphasis on cooperation, the combatting of piracy and drug trafficking, as well as environmental concerns. These have become new priorities but the ideals of the ZOPACAS, however, remain the same: maintenance of peace and the strengthening of multilateral cooperation between members.
For South Africa, one the many positive outcomes of the end of Apartheid was its membership of the ZOPACAS. Like the abandonment of its nuclear arsenal, it is an example of the country’s shift from isolation, from a regime based upon racism and a recent history of draconian internal repression of its majority population, to a shared ideological alignment with twenty-three other states, to the extent that it too sought common goals of peace and cooperation in the South Atlantic. The addition of South Africa introduced another important player, a country with power and influence in Africa but also one interested in furthering South-South cooperation. As members of IBSA, Brazil and South Africa have continued to collaborate, and both have participated, along with India, in the IBSAMAR naval exercises. The size and reach of South Africa suggests that in the future it may begin to rival Brazil in terms of influence in the ZOPACAS.
The ZOPACAS agenda has evolved since 1986 and has developed to keep up with changing security concerns in the South Atlantic region. In the post-Cold War period, there has been increased debate in international fora and elsewhere about the Global South and South-South cooperation. The agenda of peace and cooperation between member states, however, remains at the heart of the ZOPACAS. This has led to the ZOPACAS often being cited as an example of multilateral cooperation, and member states have also been vocal in their individual approaches to, and interests in, the South Atlantic and regional security. In recent years, there has been a rise in concerns over maritime security, sustainable development, and the presence in the South Atlantic of extra-regional actors (such as the US and China), as well as piracy and drug trafficking. These concerns have escalated interest in strengthening maritime security and also brought those issues into sharper focus as potential threats to peace. These matters have impacted the agenda of the ZOPACAS and what the organisation defines as a perceived threat, and as a danger to the maintenance of peace. In turn, there has also been an increased focus on the maritime region of the Gulf of Guinea where many of these concerns have arisen. The most recent ministerial meeting in 2013, in Montevideo, was the first to include defence ministers along with foreign ministers among countries’ representatives. This is significant in seeking to address the growing security concerns of the ZOPACAS member-states. This sign of evolution indicates an explicit shift towards addressing defence concerns and signals an acknowledged need to move towards explicit military cooperation.
Brazil and the ZOPACAS
Looking across to South America, Brazil, a hegemon in the South Atlantic region, has been a leading member of the ZOPACAS since its inception. With a coastline of over 7,000 km, it is not surprising that the South Atlantic Ocean is a principal area of interest for the country. It is therefore beneficial for Brazil to maintain good if not strong diplomatic and defence relations with its neighbours, both in South America but also across the ocean in Africa. Brazil’s interests and aspirations in the South Atlantic are military, commercial, socio-economic, and diplomatic. Furthermore, its diplomatic and defence agenda in the South Atlantic was central to its role in the establishment of this zone of peace.
In fact, the ZOPACAS can be viewed as a Brazilian project, and indeed without Brazilian efforts the continuation of the ZOPACAS would not have been possible. Senior Brazilian diplomats frequently refer to ZOPACAS as “our initiative”, and in several diplomatic cables in the Itamaraty archives, the ZOPACAS has been explicitly described as an ‘iniciativa brasileira sobre a zona de paz e cooperação do Atlântico Sul’. Brazil has hosted two of the seven ministerial meetings and provides the momentum behind what can be referred to as a “new revitalisation” of the ZOPACAS. As mentioned earlier, the most recent ministerial meeting of the ZOPACAS was back in 2013; this has been the longest lull between ministerial meetings, the previous being between those in Buenos Aires in 1998 and Luanda in 2007. Brazil is currently taking steps to instigate another ministerial meeting and the importance of the ZOPACAS is apparent in both the 2020 Brazilian National Defence Plan and the Naval Strategy Plan 2040.
The National Defence Plan makes reference to the importance of the ZOPACAS and details how strengthening it will help consolidate Brazil’s position as a relevant regional actor, increase the country’s influence in its strategic environment, and reduce the possibility of military interference by extra-regional powers in the South Atlantic. The Naval Strategy Plan, which includes a twenty-year outlook, mentions the need to consolidate the ZOPACAS and avoid what it calls the interference of illegitimate interests. These steps, taken by the Brazilian Ministry of Defence, indicate a direction of travel towards a “new revitalisation” of the ZOPACAS—as signalled by the reference to the ZOPACAS made by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in his speech at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2020.
It would be fair to say that, until very recently during the populist Bolsonaro presidency, in terms of foreign policy Brazil has largely followed where the US led under Donald Trump. Yet the Bolsonaro government appearing to give its support to the ZOPACAS would nevertheless suggest some independent thinking, in relation to past US opposition to the organisation’s establishment. On the ideological front, Bolsonaro and his government stand as polar opposites of a number of the Brazilian presidents and governments that precede him, such as the social democrat Cardoso and the avowedly leftist Brazilian Worker’s Party (PT) governments of Lula da Silva and Rousseff; and yet despite this, Brazil continues to endorse the ZOPACAS. Even with a limited interest in multilateralism, Bolsonaro’s government appears to view the ZOPACAS as one route to maintaining relations with Brazil’s neighbours on both sides of the Atlantic.
ZOPACAS into the future
Brazil is not the only country paying renewed attention to this zone of peace. It is joined by most of the countries that make up what I would call the Big Five ZOPACAS member-states: South Africa, Nigeria, Angola, Argentina, and Uruguay. Two countries, Argentina and South Africa, along with Brazil, are members of the G20 and have relatively sophisticated armed forces. Nigeria and Angola have some dominance in Africa and have significant natural resources, including abundant oil reserves. Uruguay, although a small country, maintains a visible and strong contribution to UN peace keeping operations (PKOs). All five have striven to be important actors in both their respective continents and the Global South, and along with Brazil, they are the six countries that have hosted ZOPACAS ministerial meetings. The Brazilian Navy hosted an online ‘ZOPACAS Symposium’ as recently as 27 October 2020, with the participation of rear-admirals from Brazil, South Africa, Argentina, and Angola, together with a number of academics. They discussed the ZOPACAS, wider South Atlantic security issues, current maritime security challenges in the Gulf of Guinea, such as the rise in piracy and drug-trafficking, and the presence of extra-regional actors in the South Atlantic, such as the UK and China. This was followed on the 9–10 November 2020 by the 6th Symposium on Regional Security, organised by the Brazilian Ministry of Defence, which featured a panel on the ZOPACAS and the Gulf of Guinea. It included opening remarks given by Brazil’s Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo and its Vice President, retired General Hamilton Mourão, in which they lauded the importance of the South Atlantic for Brazil. This recent activity reinforces the notion of a “new revitalisation” of the ZOPACAS. It also shows the continuing importance of the founding ideals of the ZOPACAS and incorporates its newer concerns, such as the need for greater collaboration in maritime security in the South Atlantic.
The concern regarding extra-regional actors is also a growing one. The UK, China, and the US are all nuclear powers and members of the P5. It is not unreasonable to assume that their presence in the South Atlantic is viewed as an additional security concern for the region and the ZOPACAS member states, as evidenced by Brazil in its National Defence Plan. The founding Declaration of the ZOPACAS clearly mentions ‘the need to preserve the region from measures of militarisation, the arms race, the presence of foreign military bases and, above all, nuclear weapons’. We know that the UK has a more permanent presence in the South Atlantic, in the form of British Overseas Territories, the Islands of the Falklands/Malvinas, South Georgia, South Sandwich, Ascension, Saint Helena, and Tristan da Cunha. It also lays claim to the British Antarctic Territory. Since the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas War, there has also been a reinforced British garrison on the Islands. It is highly doubtful that the British presence in the South Atlantic will end or be reduced in the near future. The possibility of an increased military presence by nuclear powers further contravenes core ideals of the ZOPACAS. This is where projections of a possible institutionalisation of the ZOPACAS, albeit delayed by COVID-19, including the establishment of a formal structure, would aid the practical application of the ideals of the zone of peace. This would also be an important step in consolidating the ZOPACAS, and be useful in combatting these encroachments, giving the ZOPACAS an amplified voice and a presence as an international forum.
Although no direct risk of military conflict with extra-regional actors seems evident at present, the ZOPACAS features prominently in current discussions on maritime security and peace and cooperation in the South Atlantic. The most pressing concern is combatting current threats to peace in the Gulf of Guinea, first and foremost clamping down on piracy and drug trafficking. As one of the most developed instances so far of South-South or South American-African cooperation, the ZOPACAS can serve as an ideological laboratory to test the regions’ approach and means to tackling such regional threats. The member-states of the ZOPACAS are renewing their interest in this zone of peace and in the face of growing security concerns, are more likely to band together to protect their interests and promote peace in the South Atlantic. A shared desire remains to defend and uphold the ideals enshrined in the Declaration of the ZOPACAS, although updated with the end of Apartheid and the independence of Namibia. As a consequence, it is clear that although it was established in the last decade of the Cold War and for the conditions imposed by a very different geopolitical context, the ZOPACAS is still relevant to further peace and cooperation in the South Atlantic. A path to a “new revitalisation” suggests that we will be hearing much more about the ZOPACAS in coming years.
Angola, Argentina, Benin, Brazil, Cape Verde, Cameroon, Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Namibia, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, São Tomé and Principe, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Togo and Uruguay.
 Ramesh Thakur (ed.), Nuclear Weapons-Free Zones (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998), 7.
 United Nations General Assembly, A/RES/41/11: Declaration of a zone of peace and co-operation in the South Atlantic (1986).
 UNGA, A/41/PV.50, 1986.
 Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Brazilian Mission to the United Nations (DELBRASONU) Collection, Diplomatic Cable Number: 1794 - XLI AGNU. Plenário. Item 139. Atlântico Sul. 24 October 1986.
 Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Brazilian Foreign Ministry to Brazilian Mission to the United Nations (DELBRASONU), Diplomatic Cable Number: OF01613A – Retransmissão. ZOPACAS. Reunião em Pretoria. Relatorio e comentarios.
 ‘[T]he Brazilian initiative on the zone of peace and cooperation of the South Atlantic’. Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (1986). Brazilian Mission to the United Nations (DELBRASONU) Collection, Diplomatic Cable Number: 1640. XLI AGNU. Plenário. Item 139. Atlântico Sul. 10 October 1986.
 Ministério da Defesa, Plano Estratégico da Marinha (Brasília, 2020); Ministério da Defesa, Plano Nacional de Defesa (Brasília: Marinha do Brasil, 2020).
 Brazilian Navy, ZOPACAS Symposium. Online Event (27 October 2020), https://www.marinha.mil.br/simposiozopacas/.
 Brazilian Ministry of Defence, 6° Simpósio sobre Segurança Regional (9–10 November 2020), https://www.gov.br/defesa/pt-br/assuntos/noticias/6deg-simposio-sobre-seguranca-regional-europa-america-do-sul-tera-participacao-de-especialistas-internacionais-e-autoridades.
 UNGA, A/RES/41/11, 1986.