The 46th General Assembly of the Organisation of American States (OAS) was not a successful event. This judgement is in no way related to the government of the Dominican Republic (DR), the organisers and hosts of the Assembly, that did a superb job. The DR deserve every credit for demonstrating that one of the smaller and less well-off countries of the Hemisphere has the capability to meet international standards in conference organisation, including simultaneous interpretation in the four official languages of the OAS.
Satisfyingly, the failures of the Conference were not due to the 14 nations of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) whose representatives showed a remarkable cohesion in standing up for the sub-region’s interests and in arguing for the strengthening of the OAS and the entire inter-American system.
The theme of the conference was “Institutional Strengthening for Sustainable Development in the Americas”. The OAS is the primary institution of the Americas; it is the only organisation that represents all the sovereign nations of the Hemisphere, except Cuba. But it is broke and unable to carry out the many mandates entrusted to it by its 34 member governments. That situation has been so for some time, and has remained neglected.
During my period of Presidency of the Permanent Council of the Organisation from January to April this year, I made addressing the critical financial circumstances a priority of my work. Barbados’ Ambassador, John Beale, as Chairman of the Finance Committee, also did sterling work in trying to focus the attention of all governments on the urgency of rectifying the financial difficulties.
In my statement on behalf of Antigua and Barbuda in the plenary session of the Assembly, I said: “We are at a defining moment in the history of the Organisation of American States. My delegation is aware that that statement has been made in the past in relation to other organisations.But, it is a compelling reality for this Organisation, and it has all the urgency of now. Were the OAS a company, it would be declared bankrupt and put into liquidation. The budget on which it currently exists is a fiction. It needs $115 million to operate properly, but its budget is only $84 million. In effect, the budgetary shortfall between what the Organisation should have to fulfil its many mandates and its income on paper, is $31 million this year alone. The situation is worsened by the arrears due by a few member states, totalling just over $27 million”.
I concluded the statement by saying, “If the OAS is to continue to deliver benefits for the peoples of its 34 member countries, its financial situation has to be addressed meaningfully and seriously”. Regrettably, the majority of member states chose not to treat ‘meaningfully and seriously’ with this vital issue; the Assembly returned the issue to the Permanent Council which has no capacity to commit the financial resources of governments. Therefore, this dire situation of the Organisation will continue until June of next year when the General Assembly will convene in Mexico. What will be left of the OAS by then is anybody’s guess, since the Secretary-General has to cut $14 million from the budget. As I stated to the Assembly, “That draconian cut is in flagrant contrast to the theme of this General Assembly. We are not strengthening the institution; we are weakening it”.
CARICOM countries can absolve themselves of any responsibility for the financial circumstances of the Organisation. Not only did they continuously argue for the issue to be tackled urgently, at the Assembly they also offered to increase their own quota contributions as a model for others to follow.
Why did CARICOM countries go so far? This was my explanation at the Assembly in the DR. “The OAS is the only organisation in which all the remaining States of our hemisphere are members as equals, and in which we are able to address the issues that concern us individually and collectively. For a small state, such as mine, that is marginalised in the world because of our size and lack of military might and economic clout, the forum provided by the OAS is of immense value.
“Within the councils of the OAS, we can advance our interests through diplomacy and negotiation; by creating understanding; and by challenging misunderstandings and misconceptions. Again, for small states, such as mine, which are suffering from unfair trade practices by larger and more powerful countries, and whose economies are knocked by harmful actions towards our financial services, the development role of the OAS is extremely important. We would like to see that role expanded and strengthened”.
I concluded my statement on behalf of Antigua and Barbuda by stating that contribution to development “is the basis on which the peoples of our countries judge this organisation and the benefits of their tax dollars that governments invest in it. The Organisation must make a difference to gaining knowledge; to growing crucial sectors of our economies; and ultimately to reducing poverty and increasing employment. If the OAS is to remain relevant to people; it must deliver for people”.
Inter-hemispheric politics and rivalries between some Latin American countries, mixed with the wider geo-political interests of the US and Canada, contributed to the paralysis on this matter. Two countries owe arrears of contributions totalling $27 million – almost the total of the present Budget shortfall. Some countries won’t commit to increasing contributions until those countries pay up.
But, it is clear that three things need to be put in place without further delay to allow the OAS to continue to play its essential role of promoting peace and development in the hemisphere. Member states that owe arrears must make substantial payments; the contributions of each member state has to be increased; and the operations of the organisation have to be streamlined to make them more cost efficient and productive.
There can be no cherry picking of elements. Each is intertwined with the other, and together they configure the doorway to the continuation of the OAS as an instrument for good in our hemisphere
At the DR General Assembly, CARICOM countries apart, the OAS was failed by its member states.
(Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States of America and the OAS. The views expressed are his own)