WASHINGTON– Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates called on his fellow defense ministers from across the Americas meeting in Canada yesterday to continue their cooperation and collaboration so they can provide a unified front to security challenges facing the region.

Speaking last night at the 8th Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americans in Banff, Alberta, Gates emphasized the strength of unity in light of changes ranging from terrorism, transnational crime, natural and manmade disasters, human trafficking, cyber threats and smuggling of weapons of mass destruction.

“While these threats may appear daunting, we cannot forget how far we have come in the past few decades, and especially since the Cold War,” Gates told defense ministers from more than 30 countries. He cited sweeping changes that have ushered in democratic ideals, open markets, social justice, respect for individual freedoms and human rights, as well as protections against crime, terrorism and instability.

“Challenges to democratic governance and regional stability remain, but there is also growing recognition throughout the hemisphere that we must stand together against common threats,” he said.

Gates pointed to examples of cooperation and collaboration already under way:

— The Caribbean Community is working to improve domain awareness and patrol capabilities;

— South American nations hope to form a regional defense council to improve military cooperation and exchange information;

— More than 90 nations, including several from the Americas, have signed the Proliferation Security Initiative to prevent criminals from obtaining weapons of mass destruction; and

— Mexico and Central American nations are partnering with the United States to combat drug cartels.

Gates said he’s impressed by regional leaders’ commitment to solving security issues essential to the region’s economic growth and long-term stability. “We must find ways to capitalize on our individual strengths, while also respecting and honoring the sovereignty of each nation here today,” he said.

Meanwhile, Gates noted the importance of cooperation, not just across national boundaries, but also within government departments and agencies, to face transnational crime, terrorism and national disasters.

Gates said he looks forward to working with his fellow defense ministers at the conference that continues through Sept. 6 to explore new ways to work toward common goals.

“We have a collective dream: a free, prosperous and secure hemisphere,” he said. “By working together, we can transform that dream into reality and embrace the great promise and potential of the Americas.”

The Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americans has been held every two years since 1995.

“Now more than ever, we are all connected and need to cooperate to achieve the security, democratic development, and prosperity we all desire,” said Canadian Defense Minister Peter Gordon MacKay, who is hosting this year’s conference.

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