It’s easy to hate on the Organization of American States. Yes, it has been used as an instrument to justify U.S. intervention; yes, it is torn by competing ideals of defending national sovereignty and protecting and defending democracy; yes, the institution is hobbled by not having a more nimble decision-making body like the Security Council at the UN; and yes, the Caribbean bloc countries have an inordinate weight in both the voting and operations of the hemispheric multilateral institution.
Oh yeah, and it is burdened with a bunch of mandates and programs and riddled with nepotism. But it’s the only pan-regional organization we have.
As a recent—and very good—Inter-American Dialogue report details, the OAS faces serious challenges given the divisions in the region. But beyond the much-needed (though perhaps unrealistic) reforms, it’s worth appreciating what the OAS means even in its currently weakened, fractured state. For one, it’s a much easier institution to appreciate under the current Secretary General, Luis Almagro. (With all due-respect to my friend Jose Miguel Insulza, who seemed paralyzed to do… well, anything over the deterioration of democracy in the hemisphere and Venezuela in particular.)
Almagro, the former foreign minister of ex-Uruguayan President Pepe Mujica, has shown a noble objectivity and courage in denouncing human rights abuses and democratic violations regardless of the ideological pretensions of the regime in question. In fact, it’s precisely Almagro’s street cred as a member of the leftist Frente Amplio that makes it all the more powerful when he calls out the brutality of criminal, self-proclaimed leftist governments in Venezuela and Nicaragua.
This week’s Permanent Council vote on Nicaragua proves the point. The resolution condemned all “acts of violence, repression, and human rights violations and abuses committed by police, parapolice [sic] groups” and called for the government to call early elections as proposed in the national dialogue. The action came about through the initiative of Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Peru, and the U.S. and passed handily, 21 to three with seven abstentions.
Could the OAS have done more than just issue a strongly worded resolution? Sure.
In the old days (OK, just the 1990s) when there was greater consensus in the hemisphere around democracy and the OAS’s role in defending it, the multi-lateral body may have brokered a dialogue and invoked Resolution 1080. (Arguably, it should have done the latter long ago.) But the vote demonstrated and deepened the international and regional isolation of the Ortega regime; and it was the OAS’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights delegation to Nicaragua that provided the objective, chilling details of the repression and the body count—which continues to grow.
The fracturing of that consensus over the OAS’s role has been ongoing. As with any multilateral organization, the OAS’s diplomatic effectiveness, moral authority and capacity to act to mediate in crisis situations, recommend sanctions, and even issue a strong resolution detailing abuses rests on that consensus.
The culprits, though, are no longer solely the near-moribund ALBA bloc countries—Bolivia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Ecuador (you know, the economic powerhouses of the region). The Trump administration has selectively supported OAS positions that favor its policy, and left it to twist in the wind when they don’t. After the controversial Honduran elections in November last year, which Almagro strongly condemned, the Trump administration rushed to embrace the questionable—constitutionally and electorally—re-election of President Juan Orlando Hernández.
The U.S. has also pulled back from its participation in the IACHR. As we detail in our forthcoming report, “Liberals, Rogues and Enablers: The Sequel,” the trend of declining adherence to—and respect for—the Inter-American system of human rights continues to worsen. In 2000, Peru, then under President Alberto Fujimori, publicly insulted the IACHR and its special rapporteur for freedom of expression; later, in 2012, a bloc of countries led by then-President of Ecuador Rafael Correa (with support from the Kirchner government in Argentina and usual partners in crime Bolivia and Venezuela) attempted to neuter the IACHR’s independence and scope of action. Today, the assault is more “pan-ideological.” At the 165th session of the IACHR in Uruguay, Jamaica didn’t send a government representative to a hearing on race-related, state violence; Venezuela and Nicaragua refuse to cooperate in the hearings; and in IACHR hearings held since the beginning of the Trump administration, U.S. representatives have either challenged the authority of the IACHR or failed to show up entirely.
The OAS Wins!?
For all its shortcomings and multiple burdens, the OAS remains the most important forum for hemispheric affairs and for discussion and defense of democracy and human rights. It’s funny to think that just a decade ago, observers were arguing that the Union of South American Republics (UNASUR) could supplant the OAS in intra-South American relations. Now, with half of its members suspending their membership (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Peru and Paraguay) and Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno considering evicting the group from its Quito headquarters, the one-time supposed solution to South American diplomacy is about to find itself broke and homeless.
But the OAS can only endure and regain its centrality in hemispheric affairs if members renew and abide by their commitment to the organization and the principles of democracy and human rights that it embodies. Shortly after the OAS vote on Nicaragua, Vice President Mike Pence tweeted out a congratulations to the body for passing the resolution. I wish he’d do the same for the IACHR, which triggered the resolution and has hosted legitimate hearings on U.S. immigration and detention policies that the U.S. has either failed to show up for or derided.