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The OAS's Defense of Democracy

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By José Miguel Insulza
Saturday, July 25, 2009

Some have claimed that the Organization of American States (OAS) is practicing a double standard by turning a blind eye to the abuse of individual rights or the manipulation of democratic practices in some countries by undemocratic means. They add that the organization is ignoring its own charter, as well as the Inter-American Democratic Charter, by inviting non-democratic regimes to rejoin our community of nations.

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Now, with the recent events in Honduras, they have gathered more rhetorical ammunition to claim that the OAS is ignoring threats to democracy in some cases and actively subverting it in others. This is not the case.

As an international organization, the OAS answers to its member states. Much like the U.N. Security Council, where one nation can block bolder actions against rogue nations, the OAS operates by a longstanding tradition of consensus among members. Therefore, the organization's decisions often require extensive negotiations and discussions.

Nonetheless, if a member state is concerned about any situation that threatens democracy within the hemisphere, it can bring the issue to the table. This was what happened with Honduras. In all other scenarios, member states, like at the United Nations, can present concerns to the permanent council. However, no other country has been raised for discussion. With the situation in Honduras, the OAS was confronted with the first real test of the Inter-American Democratic Charter since its adoption in 2001.

Despite earlier OAS attempts at reconciliation, on June 28 there was a military-backed coup d'etat that ousted the democratically elected president. The coup was immediately condemned by every OAS member state and the international community, including the United Nations and the European Union. Since then, not a single government has recognized the interim regime. Furthermore, the OAS resolution barred me from speaking with the de facto government in Honduras.

OAS member states unanimously made the decision to invoke Article 21 of the Democratic Charter and suspend Honduras from active participation in the OAS. This suspension of Honduras demonstrated the member states' unwavering commitment to abide by the standard of sustaining democracy. Some grumble that this action was brash and irrational and that the OAS refused to consider the special case of Honduras. Nonetheless, the OAS and its member states must adhere to the principles, practices and purposes of the organization.

Following the suspension, the OAS began working closely with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and others to find a path to resolve the impasse. Consequently, the OAS played a key role in enlisting and supporting the mediation efforts managed by the president of Costa Rica, Oscar Arias. The OAS has advocated the acceptance of the resulting "San José proposal" by both sides to help the nation reconcile and return to democratic norms.

Additionally, the OAS has stated that only through negotiations, not through brash actions or defiance of each other, can the parties avert violent confrontation. Once an agreement has been reached, Honduras will be able to reclaim its seat among the nations in the inter-American community. This will be possible because all member countries have agreed on the measures taken.

Latin America has come far in its embrace of democracy, which is no minor achievement. However, recent events also reveal that these democracies, in several cases, are imperfect in their exercise. The same can be said about the instruments constructed to protect democracy, chiefly the Inter-American Democratic Charter. While it serves as the basis for democratic norms and serves as a defense against attacks on democracy, there is room and need for improvement. Today we have to demonstrate that we can resolve the current crisis with the tools we have.

The writer is secretary general of the Organization of American States.



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