On September 24, Uruguay abandoned the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (TIAR or the “Rio Pact”) in response to a United States and Lima Group-led effort to use the treaty as a basis to sanction Venezuela. Uruguayan Foreign Minister Nin Novoa announced the decision saying the move was an “obvious attempt” by these members to punish Venezuela, a move the country considers is in violation of international law. But by leaving the treaty, Uruguay might be hurting its own cause on Venezuela.
The “Rio Pact” is a regional defense agreement first signed in 1947. It binds its 18 members to resolve disputes peacefully and promises mutual defense in the case of an attack by another state, based on the principle “an attack against one is an attack against them all.” At a meeting held during the 74th United Nations General Assembly, the 18 Foreign Ministers of the current TIAR, which hadn’t met in 18 years, passed a resolution adopting multilateral sanctions against individuals linked to Nicolás Maduro’s government.
Leading up to the meeting, there was speculation that the U.S. was hoping to use the pact to justify military action against Venezuela. While U.S representatives denied these claims, Foreign Minister Nin Novoa stressed the illegality of threatening the use of force. The Uruguayan government appears to see this resolution as a first step toward justifying military action against Venezuela, despite U.S. denials.
In theory, the treaty could be used to justify military action if Venezuela first committed an armed attack against one of its neighbors, allowing states to invoke article three of the Rio Pact, which provides for collective self-defense. Alternatively, states could argue for greater measures under article six, by claiming that the Maduro regime poses a threat to the region’s peace, similar to what happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, any such decision would need to pass another round of votes by treaty members.
However, the meeting on Monday 23 resulted in member countries agreeing to impose sanctions against members of the Maduro regime and reiterating their refusal to consider using military force, a position the Lima Group and several other countries had previously adopted. However, Minister Nin Novoa further claimed that Uruguay cannot “allow a measure…that allows foreigners to enter a country to capture, extradite and sanction without the consent of the country,” a response to the resolution’s call for member states to “investigate, prosecute, capture, extradite, and punish those responsible and provide for the freezing of their assets.”
Legally, the Minister’s claims may be open to challenges—the resolution’s call for states to capture, extradite and sanction does not require them to enter Venezuela and may instead be understood as calling on the TIAR’s members to do so if sanctioned individuals enter their jurisdiction.
Why did other regional countries sign the resolution? In contrast to Uruguay’s position, the other members consider the Maduro regime a real threat to the region given its involvement in drug trafficking and possible terrorist activities.
More broadly, while the “Rio Pact” could be used by the U.S. and its allies to justify a future intervention, it is clear that this resolution does not justify a use of military force. By the end of the meeting it was obvious that a majority of states would not agree to a military response at this time. As such, the resolution has no provisions allowing states to use force against Venezuela. While this could change in the future, it would require another meeting of the council and a new resolution.
However, by deciding to leave the TIAR, Uruguay limits its ability to shape these resolutions in the future. While the current resolution was adopted with 16 votes in favor, with only Uruguay voting against and Trinidad and Tobago abstaining, it is clear from the discussions around the meeting that many states remain hesitant to endorse any kind of military solution. Were Uruguay to remain in the treaty, it may have greater influence alongside these states to shape future debates on Venezuela. By leaving, Uruguay ends its access to these meetings and, importantly, its ability to negotiate under the agreement’s legal framework. If the goal is to prevent military action, it seems that it would be best for Uruguay to do so within the TIAR. Any future discussions of military options would need to be voted on, by leaving the negotiating table, Uruguay is out of the discussion.
Moreover, while certain states may be interested in using military force against Venezuela, there is no clear consensus on the matter. This means that debates are likely to continue within the TIAR. By leaving, Uruguay limits its ability to shape these debates, increasing the odds that any decision reached, may be contrary to its interests or goals.
Kyle Rapp is a Ph.D. student in political science and international relations at the University of Southern California. His research focuses on the structure of international law and its use in foreign policy.
Nicolás Albertoni is a Uruguayan Fulbright-Laspau Scholar at the University of Southern California, where he is pursuing a Ph.D. in political science and international relations. He is the Principal Investigator of the Trade Policy Project for the Security and Political Economy Laboratory at USC.