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Member States Begin Reflection on the OAS, its Purpose, Achievements and Future

  November 8, 2012

The Permanent Representatives of the hemisphere took part today in a session of reflection on the Organization of American States (OAS), its purpose, achievements and future, in a special meeting of the Permanent Council.

The meeting, convened by the Chair of the Permanent Council and the Permanent Representative of Mexico to the OAS, Joel Hernández, included the participation of the Secretary General of the OAS, José Miguel Insulza, and a group of panelists which include Michael Harvey, President of the Canadian Council for the Americas; Ambassador Richard Bernal, Executive Director for the Caribbean at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB); Ambassador Luigi R. Einaudi, member of the Council on Foreign Relations; and Ambassador Carlos Portales, Director of the Program on International Organizations at American University.

The purpose of the meeting was to encourage a debate among the Member Countries on the main strategic lines that set the organization’s activities in the hemisphere, and to debate how the OAS can maximize its potential to carry out its mandates in a more efficient way that better serves its Member States. "We want to place our organization in the current context of inter-American relations and initiate a provocative dialogue that allows for a process of reflection among the Member States," explained Ambassador Hernández.

In the opening address, Secretary General Insulza highlighted that currently "relations within the inter-American system are strong, vigorous and in general, healthy," and welcomed the dialogue, commenting that the system “has not remained rooted in the past, it has evolved to fit changing realities, which is proof of its vitality.” "Currently, there is a different reality, a much more diverse region in terms of the size, history, wealth and aspirations of its members," he added.

The leader of the hemispheric institution presented to the members of the Council a brief summary of the history of the OAS and an analysis of how the organization can adapt to meet the challenges of the twenty first century. He called for a focus on the fundamental pillars of the organization - democracy, human rights, security and development - and for better coordination with other organizations of the Inter-American system. To that end, he urged consideration of four factors: first inclusiveness, "because we want all the 35 countries of the Americas to be in the OAS and feel a part of it;” second, democracy: “it is imperative that the States be democratic;” third, "they must also be sovereign and self-determined, as specified on the OAS Charter;” and fourth, “all the countries want to play a role on the world stage and be part of all the systems that make up part of contemporary international relations," he said.

Insulza highlighted the organization’s historical capacity to adapt to change, as happened with the promotion of democracy, which has changed over the years to adjust to the national, continental and global changes that have transformed democracy into a sine qua non condition, an obligation of the countries, rather than an aspiration. "The original reference to democracy had a sense of an aspiration; nations wanted to achieve democracy, they could not put it in another way because many had no democracy," he said. "From the Declaration of Santiago de Chile in 1991 and the Inter-American Democratic Charter, the pillar of democracy was transformed to become an obligation of the countries," he added.

Among the current strengths of the institution, Secretary General Insulza also noted that over the years the OAS "has been building a cumulative knowledge especially in the legal field that has made it the repository of all the important and current legislation of the hemisphere."

In his proposal for how to move forward to meet the changing needs of the world and the region, and to contribute to make the twenty first century "the century of Latin America," he said that the contribution of the OAS should focus on “the defense of the democratic system and the promotion of governability, the strengthening of the Inter-American Human Rights System; the development of the institutions and human resources; and a substantive emphasis on public security."

For his part, the President of the Canadian Council of the Americas, Michael Harvey, presented his perspectives on the OAS and regional organizations in the Americas, focused on what he called his “toolbox theory.” “Each multilateral organization is like a tool to fix a specific problem,” he said. “The tools are different, have different uses, and sometimes different tools can fix or help to fix the same problem from different angles.” In this theory, he explained, the OAS stands out for its work in the areas of promotion of democracy, particularly through its Electoral Observation Missions, and the promotion of security in the hemisphere.

Ambassador Richard Bernal, the Executive Director for the Caribbean of the Inter-American Development Bank, centered his presentation on the role of the OAS as a promoter of integral development. He recognized the difficulties presented by the current economic crisis for development, but suggested the involvement of the OAS in “more cooperative and collaborative project and technical assistance delivery with sister Inter-American System institutions.” “The OAS,” he emphasized, “is indispensable.” “The history of the OAS suggests that it has always listened to the membership, it has always sought to adapt to the mandates given by Member States and to try to fulfill those,” said Ambassador Bernal. “I remain convinced that the organization will adapt to the new challenging circumstances which we face with regard to integral development,” he concluded.

Luigi Einaudi, former Secretary General of the OAS and current member of the Council on Foreign Relations, focused his address on the OAS and multidimensional security. "The OAS is a multilateral organization of the sovereign nation states of the Western Hemisphere. This apparently simple definition combines concepts, all of them unfortunately today are under fire," Einaudi said. In this regard, he noted that multilateralism is threatened "because today's world is increasingly disorderly and fragmenting" and warned that sovereignty is threatened by problems related to drug trafficking, weapons and migrants that "cannot be solved by any state acting alone," but only by working together. The problems are crosscutting, and must be resolved that way, he said.

Einaudi cited OAS achievements in the areas of security, and remembered as a milestone the OAS hemispheric meeting held in Mexico in 2003, "when the Cold War was left behind" with the Declaration on Security in the Americas. The meeting gave birth to "a new concept of security in the hemisphere that is multidimensional in scope, and includes traditional and new threats” and that “security must be understood as multidimensional, not just military." Einaudi said the new concept of multidimensional security is focused on new challenges, such as combating drug trafficking, transnational crime and human trafficking. This new approach, he said, is necessary and essential, but he warned, "is not without controversy due to the bad memories of the past" and the suspicions aroused by the current role of the military in combating drug trafficking.

Carlos Portales, Director of the Program on International Relations at American University, referred to the role of the OAS in the promotion of democracy and human rights during the last 60 years. “The Inter-American system of human rights stands out among the most advanced systems of international protection. Only Europe, through the European Convention on Human Rights of 1953, preceded the American process. More recently, the African Union has begun to develop a similar process, but unlike the universal protection system, the fundamental part of the Inter-American system and the European system is that they give individuals the access to appeal in cases in which the responsibility for protecting their rights has not been satisfied by the state," said Portales, who stressed the "importance of the universalization" of the Inter-American system.

The university authority called for awareness about the importance of ensuring that the system has the necessary funds to meet all its assigned tasks. "Meeting the growing demands of the System demands an effective increase in financial resources for the Commission and the Court, something which is a long-standing commitment unmet by the States," he said. In this regard, he warned that "many of the problems that arise in the operation of the system will be resolved by generating the conditions to be able to count on judges and commissioners, at least on partial days, as well as strengthening the technical teams with which they work.”

Portales also highlighted the role of the OAS in the promotion and defense of democracy. He recalled the adoption in 2001 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, and appreciated that in recent years, "there have been several cases where the Permanent Council and the Secretary General have acted wisely to avoid institutional breakdown" in the hemisphere.

During the session of the Permanent Council, the representatives of Nicaragua, Brazil, Venezuela, Canada, the United States, Saint Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Panama, Haiti, El Salvador, Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, Mexico, Costa Rica and Guatemala all participated.

As part of the session, the Permanent Council expressed condolences to the government and people of Guatemala for the earthquake that hit the country yesterday and that left more than 50 dead and thousands homeless.

A gallery of photos of the event is available here.

The video of the event is available here.

For more information, please visit the OAS Website at

Reference: E-406/12