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News from OAS:

Organisation of American States (OAS)

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Commentary: OAS dysfunctionality requires Charter review
Published on March 31, 2017Email To Friend    Print Version

By Sir Ronald Sanders

On March 28, the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States (OAS) experienced a public spectacle of disarray that, in 36 years of diplomatic life in many international and multinational organizations, I have never witnessed. A similar observation was made by many other seasoned ambassadors.

Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the US and the OAS. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are his own. Reponses to:
The spectacle, which was a complete breakdown of all the norms of diplomatic discourse, resulted from the dysfunctionality of the OAS; the antiquated nature of its governing Charters; and the long overdue need for a revision of its procedural rules.

A highly fractious and contentious public meeting – carried live via an Internet streaming – was brought to a premature end with some delegations on their feet, ready to walk-out; accusations being fired back and forth across a room (named after the great Latin American integrationist, Simon Bolivar); and the chair of the meeting struggling to retain order.

The occasion was a request by 18 member states, which included four Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries, to discuss the situation in Venezuela – a situation, described by governments, think-tanks and non-governmental organizations as dire.

Among the reasons for concern that they cite are: a looming humanitarian crisis arising from a shortage of food and medicines; a stand-off between the government and opposition parties that is destabilizing the country; a rapidly deteriorating economy; and the imprisonment of opposition political activists. These are all descriptions hotly denied by the Venezuelan government.

The meeting was preceded by enormous pressure on many of the OAS member states to come down either against or for Venezuela’s refusal to allow the meeting to proceed.

In the run-up to the meeting US Congressional representatives wrote to governments urging them not to side with Venezuela. Senator Marco Rubio went somewhat further by warning Haiti, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador that it would be difficult to protect them from possible cuts in US aid if they supported Venezuela.

The Venezuelan government also sought to marshal forces, particularly among the countries to which it had provided concessionary financing for oil under PetroCaribe arrangements.

In the event, lines were drawn between member states, not helped by toxic remarks and two reports by the secretary-general of the OAS, Luis Almagro, that many representatives of member states felt had exceeded his authority. His public war with the president of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, in language (by both of them) reminiscent of domestic political hustings, had not helped to heal divisions between member states or to create an atmosphere for constructive dialogue – a role, which every secretary-general of every international or multinational body, is expected to play.

Venezuela opposed the request by the group of 18 countries for a meeting at which the situation in the country would be discussed. It based its objection on Article 1 of the OAS Charter, which states that the OAS “has no power other than those expressly conferred upon it by this Charter, none of whose provisions authorizes it to intervene in matters that are within the internal jurisdiction of the Member States”.

However, the Permanent Council was compelled to rely on the only available legal opinion as to whether Article 1 did indeed prohibit discussion of Venezuela without the permission of the government. That legal opinion came from the chief legal officer of the OAS Secretariat who answers to the secretary-general, and while his opinion might be perfectly correct, it was doubted by member states during the meeting, giving rise to uncertainty about whether the Council was proceeding on a sound legal footing or in violation of the Charter.

For the third time in 18 months, I drew attention to this fundamental problem by saying: “We proposed to the Permanent Council that it would be more appropriate for this Council to commission three distinguished jurists drawn from member states to offer Opinions from which the Council could accept the two that are closest to each other. We remain convinced that this should be the way we deal with legal opinions in the future. There should never be any doubt about the legal basis for our actions as there is now.”

This matter points to the need to review the Charter which was written at a different time in international relations – a time when governments were less concerned about the internal affairs of other states, and when the risk of contagion and harmful effects lacked the bite that they have today, including refugees, break down in security and humanitarian crises that become a burden on neighbouring states.

There should be absolute clarity on whether any member state can prohibit a discussion of its circumstances should a majority of others – and evidence – suggest that a discussion is warranted. And, legal opinions, if they are necessary should come from objective and neutral jurists.

Further, in today’s international reality of humanitarian crises, cross border contagion and a widespread global desire for stability within states, every governing charter of all organizations, including the United Nations, should be reviewed to allow for assessments of situations in member states if there is sufficient concern by a majority of other member states and evidence of a break down in democracy and the rule of law, or of a humanitarian crisis.

Indeed, if the OAS Charter provided for such an evidence-based assessment, its member states would be constrained to stick to the rules in the full knowledge that if they are broken, a majority of other countries would have the right to inquire into their situation.

I made the suggestion for: “The appointment of a Commission to review the OAS Charter, including the establishment of objective machinery which would determine if there are good reasons for addressing stresses on democracy, the rule of law and human rights in a member state.”

And I made the point that the proposal was not reinventing the wheel since similar machinery exists in the Commonwealth of Nations for its 51 member states, and the role of the machinery – a representative committee of ministers – is not be to be punitive, but to be helpful through a series of engagements. Only when such engagements have been exhausted is suspension contemplated.

The Permanent Council meeting of March 28 was held in conditions that set its failure even before it started. In no other diplomatic circumstances has any country been discussed with a view to negotiating resolution of a crisis, in the full glare of the media and on live television. There was no opportunity for frank and confidential discussion or for negotiation and compromise. Consequently, the slanging match ensued, blinkered and deafened.

The OAS is an ailing organization. Its charter is not relevant to its time; its procedures are ill defined and the lines of authority, particularly between the Permanent Council and the secretary-general are unclear; and it is starved of the financial resources it needs.

To be effective and relevant to its people and its times, the OAS urgently needs a Charter review, or like an ailing patient on life support, it will be paralyzed until it passes away in indecisiveness and insignificance.

© Copyright to this article is held by Sir Ronald Sanders and its reproduction or republication by any media or transmission by radio or television without his prior written permission is an infringement of the law. Republished with permission.
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Paco Smith:

Sir Ronald Sanders,

Thank you very much for highlighting the realities surrounding the current state of the OAS. Your assessment, form within the belly of the beast, so to speak, is quite appropriate.

From a structural, procedural and dare I say, operational standpoint in terms of the undue influences which evidently control its "leadership", to dub the OAS as being "antiquated", is political correctness at the most diplomatic level.

The given the undue influence of the International Political Economy, when it comes to matters such as the the current situation in Venezuela, for all intent and purposes, leaves a lot to be desired, to say the least.

Indeed even the most casual of observers, once they are attuned, should question the suitability of the current systems which govern the functionality of the OAS and by extension, its effectiveness.

That brings me to the matter involving my country of Belize and the unfounded Guatemalan claim to our sovereign territory. The OAS, on the misguided judgment of the Government of Belize, is doing its utmost to steer Belize into taking the matter to the ICJ for adjudication.

With the gross level of incompetence demonstrated by successive Government of Belize administrations, concerning this matter of national significance, dating back to the signing of the once, much-vaunted "Compromis" in 2008, coupled with the blatantly biased facilitation of the process (in favour of Guatemala), as has been carried-out by the OAS, I shudder to think of what awaits Belize, if Belizeans are gullible enough to take the advice of an institution that is obviously in the throngs of internal disarray, as it relates to its own functioning.

Nonetheless, the onus falls upon the people of Belize to do the right thing and as the old Belizean Creole proverb states, "Sleep wid yu own eye". Therefore, let us push the re-set button on our how we endeavour to handle the existential threat posed by Guatemala, by voting a resounding 'NO to the ICJ", on the occasion of the impending referendum. Thereby setting the stage for Belize to enter into an arrangement in which the proverbial deck is neither initially, nor entirely stacked against us.

For the GOB to have signed on to the "Compromis", with the stipulation of placing Belize's sovereign territory on the chopping block, as part of the deliberations by a panel of ICJ jurists, is tantamount to treason. Once the people of Belize reject this arrangement,we must use our diplomatic skills to broker an arrangement, which not only evens the stakes, but also safeguards Belize's territory, in the event the people decide to have the matter adjudicated at the ICJ.

To boot, I have yet to touch on the unbridled intransigence that Guatemala continues to demonstrate, with regard to not only the "Compromis", but also the undue facilitation by the OAS to all of Guatemala's whims. They have been allowed to move the goal post on many occasions, much to my chagrin, because the impotent and incompetent representatives in Belize's government sit idly by and allow them to do so.

In sum, the people of Belize must demonstrate their discontent with the mismanagement, misrepresentation and overall intentional dysfunction which is the hallmark of our nation's diplomatic representation on this very serious matter, for all indications from not only within, but without...that being the presumed broker, the OAS, is that very little exists along the lines of allowing for unbiased, balanced mitigation, stemming from the institutional level and beyond.

C. ben-David:

All such useless but costly organizations run by and for their legions of highly paid bureaucrats, consultants, advisors, hangers on, etc. -- OAS, United Nations, European Union, Caricom, etc. -- need to be permanently anesthetized for the good of humanity and their member states.

Let's just go back to the best form of dealing with the issues these organizations are never able to solve, namely, bilateral or minimally multilateral negotiations and treaties.

These monsters need to be relegated to the dustbin of history.

Whatever happened to "small is beautiful?"


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