Amid the finger-pointing and blaming over votes at the Organisation of American States (OAS) on matters related to Venezuela, the fundamental problems of the organisation have been overlooked.
Sadly, and wrongly, media commentators and armchair experts have chosen to target “Caribbean countries” as the “villains” behind blocking resolutions on the situation in Venezuela. Several of them have credited the draft declaration on which a vote was taken on 19 June to the United States or Peru.
The fact is that the draft declaration was a negotiated text, based in large measure, on a draft that was produced by Caribbean Heads of Government.
While misrepresentations are regrettable, of greater importance is the weakness of the organisation itself and the paralysis that it faces as a direct result of its outmoded Charter and rules of procedure. In its present form, it cannot legitimately interfere or intervene in the internal affairs of its member states.
For the Caribbean, a particular area of disquiet should be the suggestion that the time has come to create a kind of Security Council of the OAS, similar to the antiquated regime of the UN, where five countries take the big decisions and each exercise a veto power over the others and every other nation. This suggestion is directed specifically at the 14 Caribbean countries which, when they vote in harmony, affect decisions of the 34-member body.
The OAS was signed into being in 1948. It was a different time, with different challenges, requiring different responses. In the 69 years that have passed, much has changed. But while those changes have occurred with dramatic effect in the world, except for three Protocols, the Charter of the OAS has remained the same.
While the Inter-American Democratic Charter was given birth in 2001, it was cradled in the construct of the OAS Charter. The UN political compact on ‘the responsibility to protect’ people from large-scale human rights violations did not come about for another four years and, even then, it was not made legally binding.
The governments of the OAS member states are trying to operate in a new and challenging environment within an old and irrelevant framework with the result that, on the political front, the organisation is paralysed, unable to take action because its rules, procedures and framework are not designed to address the circumstances between states and within states that now challenge the hemispheric community.
Instead of seriously reviewing the organisation to determine its purpose in a changed world; and to consider what reform is required to make it fit for purpose, and relevant to its transformed circumstances, a few states attempt to break its rules and procedures to achieve ends that they regard as desirable.
But, breaking rules may work for a time; it is not sustainable. Short term objectives might be achieved by a few, but at a price of distrust, disharmony and discord that does not – and will not – serve the OAS well.
There is an urgent need to review and reform the organisation. The need has existed for some time. The time for that work is now. For instance, there is a dysfunctionality between the role of the Permanent Council and the Secretary-General. That dysfunctionality exists because there are no clear rules between the authority of the Permanent Council and the Secretary-General.
Until the authority of the two instruments of the organisation and their relationship with each other, including their limits, are made clear, the opportunity for self-serving interpretation will remain. And so too will continue the opportunity for mischief that retards – not advances – the hemispheric body.
At the 47th General Assembly of the OAS in Mexico from 19 to 21 June, Antigua and Barbuda made an appeal for the assembled governments to begin to think about the importance and necessity of establishing machinery for a full review of the organisation, leading to recommendations for reform that would make it fit for purpose, relevant to its time and its peoples, and more efficient and effective in its structures of management and decision-making. Tinkering at its edges by agreeing to “strengthen” its institutions merely delays the day of reckoning and makes reconstruction much harder.
All nations now exist in a troubled world, beset by an increasing gap in global inequality where the rich are getting richer and the poor, poorer; where the weak are disadvantaged for the benefit of the strong; and where Climate Change is denied even as its effects wreak havoc in island states and states with low coastal areas.
The hemisphere needs the multilateralism that the OAS could provide, particularly at a time when unilateralism has assumed a new and large dimension. There is now a brashness to unilateralism in which might is pursued falsely labelled as right.
In this regard, it has been suggested that there should be some form of weighted voting in the organisation – one that gives more strength to the votes of larger countries, and less regard to smaller states. But, if that is what is intended by “strengthening” the OAS, it is an ill-conceived notion.
Small Caribbean states do not seek to impose their will on any; instead they seek cooperation and dialogue in furtherance of the interests of the home of the Americas in which all the peoples of OAS member states live. Within the organisation, they have helped to build networks in times of institutional failure; consensus in a time of divisiveness; and bridges in a time of walls.
The financial contributions of small states to the OAS may be relatively modest in volume terms, but they are equivalent to the percentage of GDP paid by every other nation, and so too is the intellectual and creative capacity that they have given to the organisation and its work. Further, since the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, the nation state has been accepted and respected.
Caribbean states have struggled through slavery and indentured labour, through colonialism and imperialism, through repression and oppression to carve a place for themselves in the world community and at the table of decision-making in the hemisphere. They earned the right to be equal members of the
OAS and they pay their dues proportionately.
Caribbean small states will not yield their rights, even as they use those rights to try to reform the OAS to make it relevant to the political and economic demands of a time very different from 1948.
(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 entirely his own)