The OAS dangerously in disarray

Over the last few days there has been a serious overreach by Luis Almagro of the authority he has as Secretary-General of the Organisation of American States (OAS).

If Mr. Almagro continues to exceed his authority, plainly set out in the Charter of the OAS, the already fragmented organisation will be headed for grave fracture.

The job of the Secretary-General of any multi-national or international organisation is to represent the positions of the collective membership of the organisation either after direction by the appropriate governing bodies or after discussion with them that establishes a consensus. Almost from the day of his installation, Mr. Almagro has steadfastly ignored any such requirements.In his latest overreach, Mr. Almagro has taken upon himself to unilaterally and publicly anoint an “Interim President” of Venezuela.

Almagro’s selection is Juan Guaidó who was elected by the National Assembly – made up of only Opposition party representatives – as its President “for a year”. He made this spontaneous statement at a meeting on January 15 at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a U.S. think-tank based in Washington, D.C.

No official organ of the OAS has made any such decision or even discussed it, and none has authorized Mr. Almagro to make it.

This latest unauthorised statement on Venezuelan matters is the most recent in a series by Almagro, directed at the Venezuelan government, that ruled-out both he, as Secretary-General, and the OAS as honest brokers in trying to reach a settlement to the political divisions that have plagued Venezuela over the past five years.

The Secretary-General has also taken to tweeting his personal views which he incorrectly represents as speaking for the OAS, a grouping of 34 countries. In a tweet on January 11, Luis Almagro stated: “We support the agreement in Venezuela’s national assembly declaring the usurpation by Nicolás Maduro and the need to apply constitutional article 233 on a transitional government and the call for an election”.

Exactly who is the “we” to whom Almagro referred is unknown, since he did not identify them. But what is known is that it is not any official organ of the OAS, including the Permanent Council, which is the highest decision-making body, representing all member states at Ambassadorial level.

It may be that Mr. Almagro is working with a handful of countries which, from their own governments’ declarations, oppose the government of Nicolas Maduro to the point where they are using every means to topple it, but in doing so, he is not representing the OAS or the collective will of the member-states. Governments are free to pursue their own national policies on Venezuela, but they have no entitlement to impose those policies on the OAS.

The reality is that the membership of the OAS is deeply divided, not over the troubling humanitarian, political and financial crisis in Venezuela, but over the response to it.

There is no member state that condones the political impasse created by both ruling and opposition parties; the shortage of food and medicines; the hardship being endured by a large number of Venezuelans; and now the flow of refugees into neighbouring countries.

The disagreement arises from the manner in which 14 countries, calling themselves “The Lima Group” has held private meetings to fashion decisions which they then try to push through the Permanent Council of the OAS on a majority vote of 18.

The problem with this approach is that when a majority of 18 secures passage of a resolution or a declaration on which others have not been consulted and that is unpalatable to them, a trail of bitterness is left among the 15 others, particularly when it is known that governments have been cajoled and pressured to help attain the majority of 18.

It is sad that in the Americas, the governments of countries, that benefitted from the wisdom of the founding fathers of the United States, ignore the observation of Thomas Jefferson, one of the authors of the U.S. Constitution, that: “All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression”.

Tied-up with Secretary-General Almagro’s disdain for the official organs of the OAS is his decision now to run for a second term, although he had previously indicated that he would not. His stance on Venezuela, particularly, would have endeared him to those member states whose governments might wish him to remain as an additional instrument for advancing their peculiar interests.

But, if Mr. Almagro is not reined-in and his overreach not curtailed, many member-states will not tolerate it, and the organisation will be damaged irreparably. Governments, except the timid and the frightened, will not sit by idly while their rights are eroded, and their voices disregarded.

Mr. Almagro’s latest dangerous pronouncement, made casually at the CSIS meeting on January 15, is that, if what he calls “the interim President” of Venezuela being Juan Guaidó, one of the leaders of the opposition, designates representatives to the OAS, he will accept their credentials and seat them, presumably ousting the current delegates.

The Secretary-General has no such authority. No instrument of the OAS gives him that power. And, if it is that Mr. Almagro is setting-up this possibility for any vested-interest group in the OAS to force adoption of such a notion by a majority vote of 18, the OAS, in its present form, will not survive it.

To be clear, objection to any such action will not come because any country is blindly supporting the Maduro government in Venezuela; it will come because the precedent it would establish would be far-reaching and dangerous for any other country that is targeted for whatever reason.

The rules of international organisations and international law must be respected and upheld, or disarray will result.

Venezuela needs a negotiated and sustainable solution for the sake of its people and for the stability of the region. Promoting division within Venezuela and isolating its de facto government from diplomatic discourse simply protracts the hardships the people endure.

(Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the Organisation of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are entirely his own)

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