Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Re-Thinking the OAS: A Forum

Reading Time: 12 minutesLatin America specialists share their perspectives on the organization’s future—and on whether it has one.
Reading Time: 12 minutes

Jareed (Flickr)

Reading Time: 12 minutes

Growing regional divisions between—but not limited to—the north and the rest of the hemisphere and the emergence of new regional organizations have focused attention on the role and purpose of the 66-year-old Organization of American States (OAS). This discussion comes as the 10-year term of the much-criticized Secretary General José Miguel Insulza draws to an end. Under his watch, the OAS leadership has failed to raise its voice against a number of assaults on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), and played a decreasing role in election observation. Similarly, the organization now has a diminished presence in matters concerning the defense of democracy, leading some to argue that the OAS Inter-American Democratic Charter (IADC), which committed member states to the protection and defense of the checks and balances of representative democracy, has become a dead letter. At the same time, a number of criticisms of the organization’s management under Insulza have surfaced.

So, does the old-timer on the block have a role in a changing hemisphere? And can a new secretary general wrestle the 35-member behemoth into a new era?

All of the commentators here agree that the OAS has played an important role in defending human rights and democracy—and most agree with the common complaint that the OAS has strayed recently in this responsibility. They also concur on the need for the OAS to embrace the region’s ideological diversity. Nevertheless, what is left unanswered is if these two are incompatible. Does the need to balance ideological diversity weaken the commitment to defend clear standards and institutions that preserve democracy and protect human rights?

One cannot look at the recent efforts to undermine the IACHR,  as well as Venezuela’s decision to pull out of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Dominican Republic’s stated desire to do so, and not wonder if ideological diversity and renewed pledges of non-intervention have diluted the hemispheric community’s commitment to key long-standing norms.

A delicate, balanced consensus on these elements has undergirded the inter-American system. But the failure of the OAS to seriously address the implications of the consolidation of executive power in countries like Venezuela, Ecuador—and Colombia under former President Álvaro Uribe—raises the question of whether the once-vaunted OAS commitment to defend democracy under the IADC has eroded.
We posed these questions bluntly to our essayists. Their answers follow on page 65.

Pía Riggirozzi responds:

The OAS is navigating in a conceptual, diplomatic and policy fog. Normative and geopolitical conditions that for decades buttressed the organization’s influential position in inter-American affairs have changed, and with it, the (hegemonic) influence of U.S. and U.S.-sponsored institutions. Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (ALBA), Unión de Naciones Suramericanas (UNASUR) and Comunidad de Estados Latinoamericanos y Caribeños (CELAC) are reclaiming the region and rebuilding inter-American relations, forcing the OAS to redefine its position. The challenge is not merely one of symbolic politics led by left-leaning presidents railing against U.S. domination. The OAS faces profound changes in the coordinates of regional power, diplomacy and cooperation.

The pressure is high. The OAS is losing ground on signature issues. UNASUR has effectively displaced the OAS as the preferred institution for conflict resolution in the region (for instance, institutional crises in Bolivia in 2008; Honduras in 2009; Ecuador in 2010; Paraguay in 2012; and political instability in Venezuela in 2014) and is engaged in innovative forms of collective diplomacy representing South America as a whole within the World Health Organization and vis-à-vis international pharmaceutical corporations. CELAC, for its part, has entangled the U.S. in a process of pragmatic diplomatic re-engagement with Cuba, bound together despite mutual opposition.

This doesn’t mean that the OAS has become irrelevant. Regional problems such as drug trafficking, organized crime and the humanitarian crisis fueled by forced migration continue to require hemispheric interactions. So does the protection of human rights, for which the role of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is critical. The OAS is well-equipped financially and organizationally to encourage a valuable nexus for its North and South American members in these areas.

Whoever assumes Insulza’s place in 2015 will be challenged by the need to balance Washington’s priorities with the concerns that spurred the creation of competing organizations in regional politics and gave them legitimacy. This is a tall order for the U.S., which can’t afford to see the region’s sole institution weakened, even as it receives lukewarm support within the U.S. Congress for its revitalization. Regaining U.S. influence in the multilateral body demands transforming it by searching for new common denominators among its fractious and increasingly independent member states.

Andrew F. Cooper responds:

If there is to be an institutional reinvigoration in the Americas, the OAS must recognize its position as the hub forum for the hemisphere. To be sure, this pivotal position has eroded over the past decade. We have seen a decline in the normative consensus around a Pan-American model of diplomacy and cooperation, with a considerable degree of organizational fragmentation with the creation of ALBA, UNASUR and CELAC. At the same time, though, the OAS is experiencing internal distress stemming from a combination of poor finances, disappointing leadership and low staff morale.

Nevertheless, the OAS retains its status as a hub organization within the hemisphere.

Despite the heightened level of ideological polarization in the region, the OAS still has a core constituency of supporters—among citizens, civil society and member states—who value its role across a range of areas, from election monitoring to the protection of human rights. And notwithstanding the strains in implementation and doubts about its efficacy, the OAS also maintains a reservoir of legitimacy in the area of democracy promotion and defense.

Part of the problem with the OAS is the loss of an effective constituency within the United States. This problem is similar to that faced by the UN. Growing popular skepticism—even rejection—needs to be countered by a public relations campaign that can educate citizens in the Americas on the historical success of the OAS and argue for its continued relevance.

Admittedly, that won’t be easy. The lingering controversies over Honduras (after the 2009 coup), the lack of attention to efforts by groups like the Friends of the Democratic Charter to support the OAS’ own commitments, and the failure to recognize the community’s recent successes to protect institutional and electoral integrity in countries like Panama have corroded the OAS’ image and reputation in the public eye.

The improved public communications process needs to be targeted beyond elite networks. Similar to the effort long undertaken by the UN, the OAS should select goodwill ambassadors to showcase the value of its activities. This would offer a counternarrative to the current media focus on conflict and negative developments in the region.

Maintaining open lines of contact between the countries at the center of the ideological polarization, particularly those in the north and those in South America, is another important role the OAS could play. It’s a role other regional groupings, which exclude the U.S. and Canada, cannot play.

And it’s worth noting that even those countries most resistant to the perceived U.S. dominance over the OAS have not given up their ties to the organization.

Perhaps the best model to follow for future engagement between the U.S. and the OAS is the diplomatic dance that preceded the June 2009 OAS General Assembly in Honduras. At the time, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was able to skillfully leverage working group meetings parallel to the General Assembly that linked member countries’ desires to promote Cuba’s re-entry into the OAS with Cuba’s reaffirmation of the basic principles of the inter-American system. Although fraught with political risks and sensitivities for both the U.S. and the OAS, that positive result demonstrates that there is still space for diplomatic skill and negotiation to trump ideological barriers. The trick is for member states and the future secretary general to use this space.

Rodrigo Páez Montalbán responds:

The OAS was present in only one of the two most significant historical changes in the region. In the 1980s, the OAS played an important role in the Central American peace process, providing vital diplomatic, political and technical backing to the initiatives of the Contadora Group—Colombia, Mexico, Panama, and Venezuela—that negotiated the peace in Central America with the Contadora Support Group. The second change, though, sowed the seeds of the OAS’ own marginalization when the Contadora Group and its Support Group formed the Rio Group, effectively becoming a precursor to CELAC by creating a diplomatic forum—and ultimately a successful peace process—that excluded the region’s powerful northern neighbors, the U.S. and Canada.

Today, the OAS shows clear signs of stagnation. It is increasingly eclipsed by sub-regional (UNASUR) or regional (CELAC) organizations created to solve local conflicts separate from the United States. Some observers even believe that CELAC will replace the OAS. However, at the moment, given its weak institutional structure and vague mandate, CELAC still has a long way to go.

There has always existed an imbalance within the OAS, with the U.S. dominating the collective 35 member states. Often—as in Guatemala, Cuba and Grenada—the OAS has served as an instrument for U.S. foreign policy. This is no longer the case, however. Increasingly, member countries are exercising greater autonomy in managing their internal and external policies.

At the same time, the regional groupings that have formed, whether on the principles of cooperation and solidarity (UNASUR and CELAC), or to pursue closer commercial relations (Mercosur and the Pacific Alliance), have negotiated more individual agreements and alliances with extra-regional actors, such as the EU, Japan and more recently, China, Russia, India, and South Africa. These relationships and agreements have helped to increase the region’s influence in the international arena, with countries such as Brazil hoping to achieve the status of responsible
global actors.

As a consequence of increasing regional autonomy, it has become evident that many of the issues important to countries in the region have distanced the rest of the hemisphere from the U.S. and Canada.

We have seen the gap grow on issues such as the demand that Cuba take part in the next Summit of the Americas; support for the Argentine position on the Falkland Islands/Malvinas; the search for a different approach to the war on drugs—including their potential legalization —and in stopping illegal arms flows; and pressure to change U.S. immigration policy, particularly concerning unaccompanied minors.

On all these issues, the region is establishing its own priorities and moving away from both U.S. interests and traditional policy answers, demanding solutions in ways that may be too large and contentious for the OAS to manage in its traditional form.

Jessica Byron responds:

There is still a role for the OAS, despite the many changes in the hemisphere and the world. No other organization in the Americas has the potential to incorporate all the countries in the region, or possesses the scope of its mechanisms for dialogue and cooperation. Nor does any other regional grouping have the breadth of experience (good and bad) in coping with the diversity of its members.

The OAS is living through a profound, irreversible power shift. The U.S. should not expect a reversion to the hegemony it exercised until the 1990s. The next secretary general will have the task of building new bridges with North American constituencies while also showing that a more autonomous hemisphere is not inimical to their interests, but will be essential in addressing shared problems. The new secretary general must also convince member states of their collective responsibility to invest more resources in an institution that they value, and in which they now exercise more influence over crucial decision-making.

Crisis and discord are not new to the OAS. The multilateral body has lived through past internal conflicts and crises of relevance, and has experienced previous phases of drift and alienation. In searching for a revamped role for the OAS, we should focus on the areas of consensus and common interest among large sections of its membership.

Despite current controversy and discontent, the OAS has made an impressive contribution to constructing and maintaining hemispheric norms on the protection of human rights and the promotion of democracy. It has also made wide-ranging contributions to socioeconomic development and to the reduction of poverty. Despite its small budget, the OAS, through partnerships with other international agencies and within member states, has helped advance education, culture, health, and public policy and governance. It will be essential to continue to expand the focus on education and opportunities for the youth.

One of the most important contributions of the OAS was its adoption of the concept of multidimensional security. Broadening the concept beyond traditional notions of inter-state security has resulted in valuable inter-state cooperation in areas such as building resilience to natural disasters and climate change, and addressing issues of violent crime and public security.

Another of its most important contributions is also one of its less prominent: creating a channel for political exchange and cooperation among the developed giants of North America, the small, developing societies of Central America and the Caribbean, and the emerging powers of South America.

Reforming the OAS will require bridging the gap between disenchanted member states that have grown distant from the organization, and the many who remain committed to the OAS. The 2015 change in leadership presents an opportunity. To seize it, the OAS will need to critically review its internal programs and initiatives,  expand relationships with other regional groupings and learn from what other organizations have done to overcome similar challenges. Ultimately, these shifts in power dynamics and demands are not unique to the OAS and this hemisphere.

Oliver Stuenkel responds:

No one disputes past OAS contributions to political stability in the Americas—for example during the crises in Peru in 2000 and in Venezuela in 2002. But in an increasingly crowded institutional landscape and subsequent “forum-shopping” by Latin American governments, the oldest regional organization is going to have to adapt to a less central and less visible role in the hemisphere for now. Yet it would be premature to say the OAS has lost its relevance. In fact, it continues to be an important regional actor.

The rise of UNASUR, of course, is notable. For example, it successfully helped diffuse tension between Colombia and Venezuela in 2010. During the most recent crisis in Venezuela, UNASUR replaced the OAS as the institutional framework for the talks intended to restart the dialogue between the government and the opposition. For now, UNASUR’s mediation efforts have produced only mediocre results, yet given the Venezuelan government’s attitude, it seems doubtful that the OAS would have been more successful. However, in the context of the new regional dynamics in South America, both Venezuela and its neighbors preferred to operate via UNASUR. Given the relatively shallow institutional structure of UNASUR, whether the organization delivers or not is essentially a function of political will in Brasília and other capitals in the region.

The rise of other regional bodies, such as CELAC and UNASUR, is not merely a reaction to Latin American countries’ dissatisfaction with the OAS, or the often-made argument that UNASUR can be more effective. Rather, all of them owe their emergence to more organic, local factors. UNASUR, for example, is very much a Brazilian initiative to define South America as a geopolitical unit and to assume regional leadership and project its influence—something far less difficult to undertake through UNASUR than the OAS.

While criticism of the OAS has grown, and with it questions about its relevance, there is little doubt that the organization remains a central normative and operational actor in the areas of human rights, election monitoring and crisis management. Yet for any multilateral organization, polarization among member states severely limits the institution’s room for maneuver. This is particularly true in the case of the OAS, which according to its charter can only act through the unanimity of all member states. Given today’s ideological divergence in the region, the requirement of unanimity prevents the OAS from acting swiftly whenever democracy appears in crisis. In addition, current budget constraints preclude the OAS from developing new initiatives.

None of this means, however, that the OAS cannot expand its relevance. It must deepen cooperation with Cuba, even if Havana does not seek full membership. After all, it is only through continued dialogue that the region can effectively deal with its many challenges—including profound human rights–related problems. Ensuring that these new efforts are successful will require the OAS to work against the notion—prevalent in parts of Latin America—that the U.S. dominates the organization.

One way to do so would be to encourage dialogue between the OAS and UNASUR —after all, they have very similar goals and should not be seen as competitors.

Finally, while several observers argue that alternative institutions such as UNASUR and CELAC have “replaced” the OAS, they have yet to show that they are capable of effectively promoting stability in the hemisphere. A change of government in Venezuela, for example, would change regional dynamics, even though it looks certain that UNASUR is here to stay.


Pía Riggirozzi:

Ideological polarization and different approaches to hemispheric governance have always existed in the inter-American system. The current crisis of the IACHR is not a court-to-court problem, nor one of perceived interventionism/colonialism. Disaffection is due to frustration with a highly unequal system of monitoring and observation across the continent, either because only a third of OAS members have ratified the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights, or because the system better serves traditional conceptions of law and rights but lacks definition and criteria of how to defend so-called “diffused and collective” rights, also key in the democratization process.

What is needed is new, negotiated criteria defining what democracy and its promotion entails from the perspective of all members, and a debate that embraces actors from outside the executive, aimed at broadening the legitimacy of, and commitments to, the inter-American human rights system and the Charter.

Jessica Byron:

The divisions, inconsistencies and ambivalence surrounding the OAS’ role in promoting democracy and human rights can only be resolved through a gradual process that involves dialogue and debate, review, and reform discussions that engage the member states, the populations of the Americas and the OAS.

The OAS also has to adapt to ideological diversity. That diversity has helped to generate critical debates around the hemisphere on the evils of poverty, inequality and exclusion that continue to deprive millions of people of their rights. Focusing on the delivery of social and economic rights, public accountability and the rule of law, citizen security, and democracy promotion will advance democracy and renew consensus in the OAS. All member states must strengthen the inter-American system of human rights by ratifying its conventions, increasing funding for its activities and supporting human rights education.

Andrew F. Cooper:

The OAS has been placed on the defensive by the pressures of revisionist states. However, the status quo is not viable either. Trying to hold on to the toolkit of the past is tilting momentum away from the organization.

Going on the offensive means both stylistic and substantive transformation. The OAS must energize a new type of multi-dimensional constituency that encompasses think tanks, civil society and even celebrities. If the OAS is to be viable, it needs to act not as an establishment club but as a diversified set of networks—and demonstrate why the IADC is essential to people’s day-to-day lives, not just in crisis. It needs to develop new means to link democracy and human rights through a new commitment or charter to citizenship. Such an initiative would not only enable the OAS to recover its normative appeal, but also establish it as a central actor in guaranteeing economic and social rights and the rule of law.

Rodrigo Páez Montalbán:

I don’t believe there is any central ambiguity in our responses. Maintaining and strengthening the inter-American system requires combining all the various existing norms and practices and applying them in such places in times of change and opposition.

It should also be remembered that within the OAS, there is no consensus of opinion regarding security throughout the region, which is why several countries have already denounced the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance that has supposedly guaranteed collective security in the region since 1947.  A similar situation could occur with the inter-American system of human rights, leaving that, too, a dead letter in the hemisphere.

Oliver Stuenkel:

Ideological diversity makes finding a consensus about democracy and checks on countries difficult, and it is worrisome whenever countries attack the inter-American system of human rights. Yet diversity cannot be an excuse to weaken human rights mechanisms, the decisive factor remains political will by policymakers, and civil society must continue to put pressure on policymakers to strengthen existing structures.

Follow Oliver Stuenkel:   Facebook   |    X/Twitter

Tags: Organization of American States (OAS)
Like what you've read? Subscribe to AQ for more.
Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Sign up for our free newsletter