Speeches and other documents by the Secretary General


June 1, 2008 - Medellín, Colombia

I am honored to be taking part once again in the ceremony inaugurating this meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the Americas, who have gathered here to examine the course of political affairs, generate new initiatives in the field of development, and seek solutions to security problems in our region.

We meet just as our Organization celebrates the sixtieth anniversary of its foundation in this beloved country. I thank President Álvaro Uribe, his Government, and the people of Colombia, and, in particular, the authorities and citizens of this beautiful city of Medellín, for their warm welcome and for the great care and efficiency they have demonstrated in preparing this thirty-eighth regular session of our General Assembly.

It would be remiss of me, however, Mr. President and authorities of Medellín, not to express the condolences of all those present and of the OAS for the tragedy that has occurred in recent hours. We lament the loss of the families and of your government; we know that you have been working on this and we offer you our solidarity and sympathies.

You know full well, Mr. President, that this OAS and this Secretary General hold Colombia close to their hearts and will do their utmost to support it in its efforts to achieve lasting peace, within a framework of democracy and social progress.

In my speech tonight, I will mention some of the major issues facing our region and our Organization. First, however, it is important to observe that they follow a year of significant progress: in our economies, in our efforts to combat poverty, and in the consolidation of our democracies.

The year 2007 marked another period of sustained growth in Latin America and the Caribbean. According to all projections and despite the problems besetting the global economy, 2008 is sure to be the sixth consecutive year of growth for the region as a whole.

Over the past years, as a result of that growth and of sound public policies in a number of countries, the population living in poverty in our region has declined by 27 million and the number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen by 16 million.

These are positive signs that we have embarked on the right path in managing our economies and in directing progress especially toward the poorest and most vulnerable segments.

In the political sphere, our democracy is growing stronger. All the governments making up the OAS were elected in free, secret, and informed ballots, with a high percentage of the electorate turning out to vote. Following the recent elections in Paraguay and the Dominican Republic, there are now 28 states in which governments have been elected or re-elected democratically in the past three years. The six remaining states will have done the same by the time we meet, in April 2009, for the Fifth Summit of the Americas. Furthermore, the region has remained stable in these past three years without the premature changes of government that occurred in the preceding decade.

That is unprecedented in the history of our region. Authorities at every level are democratically elected in the Americas, for fixed terms in office; and political differences are settled by means of plebiscites or elections, whose outcomes are respected by all.

We are proud to be able to say that the Organization of American States has been an active protagonist in the positive processes and developments that now characterize our region.

In 2007, we conducted eight electoral observation missions in six member states, for which we mobilized hundreds of observers and experts on electoral issues.

We were there, whenever we were asked to be present to facilitate solutions to moments of crisis, as illustrated in the recent tensions between Ecuador and Colombia. We continue to lend support to the efforts of the Government of Bolivia to promote the stability of the democratic system and to proceed with the Constituent Assembly process.

For its part, the OAS Mission to Support the Peace Process in Colombia continued its work of verifying the dismantling of the armed wings of the United Self-Defense Units of Colombia (AUC) and the reintegration of 30,000 former combatants.

We are also continuing our political facilitation work in the differendum between Belize and Guatemala, a task that involved a proposal by the Secretary General to both governments to entrust the definitive solution of this matter to international bodies and to proceed with the voluntary transfer of Guatemalan families from the village of Santa Rosa, located in the Adjacency Zone between Belize and Guatemala, to the department of Peten in Guatemala.

We have continued to support the Government of Haiti, within the framework of the resolution adopted by our General Assembly last year. One of the activities that has brought us great satisfaction in this area has been the effort to provide to the inhabitants of this country with a civil identity. Today, the ongoing registration of Haitians is an established practice, using a modern, sustainable, and affordable digital system. Since September of last year, more than 600,000 new citizens have been registered, bringing the total to 4.2 million. And we are extending our Civil Registry Program to other countries.

In addition, we have been attending to other issues that are vital for good governance, such as fighting corruption, strengthening our justice systems, and defending the rights of women and minorities.

In the area of integral development, together with our member states, we have continued the task of designing and implementing policies, programs, and projects geared to human capacity-building, institution-building, and the development of effective public policies, especially in education, employment, social development, culture, trade, science and technology, sustainable development, and the environment.

In 2007, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights received 1,456 new complaints, opened 126 new cases, submitted 14 cases for consideration by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and issued 40 injunctions to member states to adopt urgent measures to prevent irreparable harm to individuals. That is how, concretely, human rights are protected in our region: a practice we need to constantly reinforce, while, at the same time, always being willing to review procedures and expand access and cooperation between our human rights institutions and the democracies of the region.

Mr. President, Ministers, friends.

This General Assembly is being held at a time when a food shortage is beginning to have an alarming toll on every region in the world. The experts are still striving to explain the surge in the prices of basic foods, but the fact of the matter is that, throughout the world, they have practically doubled in the past three years. That situation is condemning millions of human beings to remain in, or revert to, poverty.

The effects of that phenomenon are already being felt in some countries in our region, especially the poorest, which have already been hit by the impact of the excessive increase in oil prices on their economies.

In our region, more than 50 million people still do not have adequate nutrition. Today, more than 9 million children suffer from malnutrition, with all its awful biological, social, and economic consequences. The high price of food threatens to undermine all that has been achieved in our efforts to combat poverty and extreme poverty.

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) has warned that a 5 percent hike in the price of food increases extreme poverty by one percentage point. The price of food has increased by much more than that, which means that approximately 10 million people are at risk of sinking into poverty and a similar number of the already poor could join the ranks of those mired in extreme poverty. That amounts to an unacceptable reversion of the positive trends of recent years, which could have unimaginable political consequences.

We must remain alert to that danger and ready to help those most in need, overcome the effects of this crisis as swiftly as possible. But we should also, however, look ahead to the future opportunities that this crisis presents for our future development. That is possible in a region in which, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), food output exceeds by 30 percent the quantity of proteins and calories needed to attend to its population’s energy needs. Thus, the problem is not the lack of food, but people’s access to it and that is a matter of public policies.

At the same time, let us not forget that, as a whole, Latin America and the Caribbean is the region with the lowest imports of food in the world and some of our countries lead the world in the production and export of cereals, grains, fruit, and meat. Irrespective of short-term, climate-related, or protectionist factors, which undoubtedly play an important part in the current crisis, it is a fact that the demand for food will continue to grow over the coming years, driven by the sustained economic growth of some of the larger countries.

A few weeks ago, I headed a delegation comprising representatives from several countries to Haiti to get a better grasp of the exacerbation of the crisis resulting from the high cost of living. It was encouraging to see that President René Préval was not only concerned about the immediate need for aid to mitigate the impact of the excessive increases in the prices of fuels and food in a country that lacks both, but also requested assistance to increase the production of rice and other foodstuffs in his own country.

Undoubtedly, increasing agricultural output and expanding free trade in farm produce are keys to solving this grave crisis that requires all our attention. I hope that this topic will be addressed at this session of the General Assembly, as a first step toward adopting a regional approach to dealing with the crisis.

In the course of this year, two urgent situations arose that called for our participation: the disruption of relations between Colombia and Ecuador, triggered by the unauthorized action of Colombian armed forces in Ecuadorian territory, and the political confrontation between the Government of Bolivia and the leaders, in the eastern part of the country, of movements demanding greater autonomy in relation to the constitutional reform process.

In both cases, our Organization’s response was swift, appropriate, and consistent with international and inter-American law. In both those cases, governments in our region, faced with crisis or conflict, opted to turn to the Organization of American States. We are proud of their trust in us and hope to continue to deserve it.

The Bolivia case is particularly worrisome because the issues at stake are closely related to the preservation and strengthening of democracy and to the preservation of national unity–both principles that are fundamental to our Organization. For that reason, we have lent our support and respect to the constitutional Government led by President Evo Morales and we have pointed out that, in order to solve the crisis, it is essential to respect the legitimate interests of the national majority represented in that Government and to harmonize them with the equally valid interests of the regional entities in Bolivia seeking their autonomy. We have also been concerned about the recent emergence in Sucre and Santa Cruz of manifestations of racism and of conduct directed against indigenous populations, which our Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has already condemned.

The OAS will be present, as requested, to observe the recall referendums on August 10, convinced that in them the Bolivian people will once again demonstrate their support for democracy. However, we are also convinced that a definitive solution to the crisis will only be reached through sincere and generous dialogue in which all parties participate. We hope to continue to enjoy the trust of the Government and authorities of Bolivia, so that we can continue working with the countries friends of Bolivia to facilitate those achievements.

In the case of the Colombian action in Ecuadorian territory, the OAS, first through its Permanent Council, on March 5, and then through its Meeting of Consultation of Ministers of Foreign Affairs, on March 17, moved swiftly, at the request of the Government of Ecuador, in applying the pertinent provisions of our Charter. At those meetings, and at the Summit meeting of the Rio Group in the Dominican Republic, on March 7, the Government of Colombia apologized to Ecuador for its action and made a commitment that it would not be repeated. These statements were reflected in the resolutions adopted at those meetings.

In principle, this incident should basically have already been settled, , in accordance with the resolutions of those meetings. Nevertheless, there are sequels and aspects following from what happened on March 1 that still need to be satisfactorily resolved. These aspects are being handled by both parties in a framework of international cooperation and by using the good offices of our Organization, as mandated by the Meeting of Ministers of Foreign Affairs. We will report on the work in this area in the continuation of the Meeting of Consultation scheduled to take place in the coming days.

As important as the solution itself, however, are the lessons learned from that incident which, in my opinion, should be taken into consideration not only by the parties directly affected, but also by all the countries which are part of the inter-American system. Clearly, when an OAS member country is confronted by an armed group, such as the FARC in Colombia, that has committed acts defined as terrorist in our Inter-American Convention against Terrorism, it is entitled to request support from other member states to combat that scourge. At the same time, its neighbors must also see that such actions do not disrupt the peace and tranquility of their own peoples. Achievement of these two objectives is possible only through cooperation –not through unilateral action–, ongoing exchange of information, and the development of confidence-building measures and mutual support, which we hope to forge among them.

In recent weeks, we have witnessed an intensification of verbal outbursts between member states that hardly help to dispel existing tensions. The publication of files found on computers confiscated during the March 1 attack has exacerbated the debate. There have been a number of requests from various sectors for the OAS to intervene in this matter in order to ascertain the facts and the corresponding responsibilities.

I wish to state very clearly that no country – neither Colombia, nor Ecuador, nor Venezuela, nor any other, has asked the OAS to investigate these allegations or to become involved in any way. More than once it has been argued that the Secretary General, mandated by you all, should act ex officio in this case, a position that contradicts the very nature of our institution, as an organization of states, and that of the Secretariat. Certainly, should any such requests be forthcoming the General Secretariat will treat them with the importance and care that they deserve.

The Government of Colombia has decided to hand over the documents that it has available to the judicial system in each country, for them to investigate possible responsibilities. That is a sovereign decision, which we respect. Everyone of us must do whatever we can to overcome the current state of affairs, by making available all the background information and clarifications needed to that end.

For our part, we will continue to seek forward-looking solutions, avoiding counterproductive disruptions in the relations among our member states, which do not lead to anything positive. Latin America and the Caribbean are a region of peace and should remain so; and there must always be room in this Organization of American States for all its member states, rooted in readiness to engage in dialogue and to seek peaceful solutions to our differences.

I am sure that, irrespective of pressures and declarations, our countries will find ways to solve their problems through dialogue and understanding. The fact that, despite those disagreements, all the countries in South America have signed the treaty constituting the Union of South American Nations – an achievement we welcome today – demonstrates the will to reach understanding.

The commemoration of the 60th anniversary of our Organization and preparations for the Fifth Summit of the Americas, to be held in Trinidad and Tobago next year, are a good opportunity for all member states to reflect on some of the basic objectives of the OAS, defined in its founding Charter and in the Inter-American Democratic Charter.

Article 2 of the Charter of the Organization of American States establishes as one of the essential purposes of the Organization the strengthening of peace and security in the Hemisphere.

This objective was underscored in the Declaration on Security in the Americas, which states that “[o]ur new concept of security in the Hemisphere is multidimensional in scope, includes traditional and new threats, concerns, and other challenges to the security of the states of the Hemisphere, incorporates the priorities of each state, contributes to the consolidation of peace, integral development, and social justice, and is based on democratic values, respect for and promotion and defense of human rights, solidarity, cooperation, and respect for national sovereignty.”

In this context, it is worth reiterating, in the framework of this Assembly, the following shared principles:

1. Unreserved respect for nonintervention–direct or indirect–in the internal affairs of other member states, and full respect for the sovereignty of all.
2. Rejection of violence as a method of political action and unequivocal condemnation of terrorism in light of the 2002 Inter-American Convention against Terrorism.
3. Commitment to not provide material support or recognition to any group practicing violence.
4. Commitment by the member states to support each other’s efforts to strengthen democracy and to reject any attempt to subvert it in any of their countries.

The adoption of confidence-building measures constitutes a significant contribution to transparency, mutual understanding, and regional security. Their consistent application helps establish a climate conducive to strengthening bilateral and multilateral dialogue, facilitates mutual understanding, and promotes increased collaboration to strengthen democracy.

We are carefully following developments in the political process in Cuba. We will always long to see this beloved sister nation fully reintegrated into our Organization. I recognize that this is a complex issue, and in no way do I want it to be a source of discord among us. I believe that our conduct in this area must be guided by flexibility and a willingness to engage in dialogue, and our founding Charter, our Inter-American Democratic Charter, our human rights conventions and other relevant treaties in this area, must always be considered in the adoption of any decision.

I also reaffirm my conviction that any process of change in Cuba should only take place according to the will of the Cuban people, through a peaceful and gradual process with full respect for the principles of democracy, self-determination, and nonintervention, which must govern coexistence in the Americas.

Public security continues to be an issue of grave concern to our Organization. It is a threat that transcends both national borders and class divisions. Violence and crime wreak havoc on the whole of society, although lack of protection means that they hit more vulnerable groups hardest: the poor, the socially excluded, and the disadvantaged. Between one quarter and one half of all women in our region are victims of domestic violence, while youths from the poorest social strata, especially young men, are the principal protagonists of gang activities, as well as the principal victims of violence. Homicides in our region (now 27.7 per 100,000 inhabitants, double the world average) are the leading cause of death among youths aged between 15 and 29 (83.2/100,000); and the rate is higher still for young people in the middle and low social strata, with over 100 cases per 100,000 inhabitants.

This is a phenomenon that is no longer just a threat. It is already a reality we cannot ignore and that we must fight without further delay. It is a problem that affects us all and which we need to face with solidarity and well coordinated action, strengthening the instruments at our disposal and expanding our cooperation.

Our decision to give high priority to these matters has led to a number of decisions and actions over the past two years. In May of this year, the VII Meeting of Ministers of Justice or of Ministers or Attorneys General of the Americas analyzed mechanisms for enhancing judicial cooperation among our countries, combating cybercrime, strengthening and modernizing our judicial systems, and coordinating our work against transnational organized crime.

On September 17, 2007, I proposed to the OAS Committee on Hemispheric Security that it organize the First Meeting of Ministers Responsible for Public Security in the Americas. I would like to thank the Government of Mexico for offering to host that meeting, which will take place on October 7 and 8, this year.

We hope to transform that ministerial meeting into a standing political and technical forum, through which all the member states can share their experiences and visions so as to consolidate views, coordinate actions, and come up with effective responses capable of diminishing the violence and crime afflicting our peoples.

That same spirit of cooperation is present in the activities of the Inter-American Coalition for the Prevention of Violence, a partnership fostered by our Organization among such multilateral institutions as the Inter-American Development Bank, the Pan American Health Organization, the World Bank, UNDP, and UN-Habitat, which share the conviction that by joining forces and sharing information they can promote and support initiatives aimed at preventing violence in the region.

Mr. President:

This General Assembly will have a special focus on issues related to Youth and Democratic Values. In so doing it will address one of the most important and far reaching concerns of those who wish to see more widespread and more deeply entrenched democracy in the Americas.

It will be young people who will benefit from any success we have with extending democracy in our region and it will be they who suffer from the mistakes we make in that endeavor. And it will be up to them to continue what we have begun to do right or else to correct our mistakes. To embark on that enormous task, young people, who are already the protagonists and makers of our history, must share our passion for democracy and know and transcend the experiences we will bequeath to them.

I trust we will be able to imbue them with our conviction that democracy is not just a system of government, but a way of life rooted in values and practices that offer the best hope for human beings to live in harmony with one another. Those practices are inspired by values such as justice, liberty, equality, tolerance, pluralism, honesty, participation, transparency, solidarity, mutual trust, respect for the rights of others, respect for laws and rules of the game, political dialogue, negotiation, the forging of consensus, and peaceful settlement of disputes. It is a way of life that abhors and combats intolerance, authoritarianism, corruption, arbitrariness, fraud, violation of human rights, discrimination, repression, violence, disregard for the law and rules of the game, and impunity.

In our region we have come a long, long way toward a shared understanding of democracy. We have carved our shared definition of it with absolute clarity into the texts that make up the juridical-institutional framework developed by the OAS over the past 20 years, particularly in the Inter-American Democratic Charter adopted by the member states in 2001.

We have handed down to our youth an explicit, exhaustive definition of democracy. But it is possible that we will also leave them with an unfinished task, which it will be up to them to tackle and complete. The fact is: we know what democracy we yearn for, but so far we have been incapable of solving the many problems that have prevented it from materializing, concretely, in the lives of the vast majority of people in our region.

We will continue to strive to put an end to inequality of opportunities and income, to bad government and the lack of good governance, to our inability to stop the destruction of the environment we live in, and to our growing capacity to destroy ourselves through crime and violence. And if our efforts prove to be insufficient, it will fall to today’s youth to take over from us and finally realize that great principle, which guides our lives and that of our Organization, for the millions of human beings in our America.

Mr. President, Ministers, Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen:

For some time, at other junctures in its history, the OAS was at the center of the ideological and political conflicts that often rocked the foundations of our hemispheric unity. Those times have ended. I believe we will be truer to the intentions of those who founded the OAS if we strengthen it as an instrument of dialogue and understanding; if we use it more to heal wounds and resolve conflicts than to stir them up and punish ourselves. I have tried, in these past three years, to make the OAS a welcoming forum for all; one in which the arguments of the same states do not always prevail and where we all feel comfortable, even though something may not always match what we ourselves think; a space in which all are free to express our opinions and to which all can have recourse, knowing that their concerns will be treated justly and in accordance with law. I believe in multilateralism, in law, in the peaceful settlement of controversy, and in cooperation as the best vehicles for relations between states in the global society. I hope that, based on these principles, we will continue to forge a Hemisphere of peace, justice, democracy, and prosperity for all our countries.