OAS - Department of Public Information

Strengthening the Democratic Commitment

The Inter-American Democratic Charter sets out a simple, clear declaration: “The peoples of the Americas have a right to democracy and their governments have an obligation to pro-mote and defend it.” In 28 articles, this landmark document—adopted on September 11, 2001—defines the elements of democracy and specifies how it should be defended when it is under threat. It gives the governments of the Western Hemisphere a framework to guide their collective action when democracy faces challenges. 

The Inter-American Democratic Charter is significant because it: 

  • Reflects the political will and collective commitment of 34 democratic nations to focus on democracy and defines what the OAS member countries agree are democracy’s essential elements. 

  • Responds directly to a mandate from the region’s heads of state and government, who stated at the 2001 Summit of the Americas that the hemisphere needed to enhance its ability to strengthen democracy and respond when it is under threat. 

  • Establishes procedures to undertake not only when democracy has been formally ruptured, as in a coup, but when democracy is seriously altered and at risk. 

  • Points out ways in which democracy can and should be strengthened and promoted in the hemisphere. 

  • Builds on and strengthens the principles and practices that have evolved over the years within the OAS, providing another tool with which to defend democracy and a template from which to evaluate deviations.  

The Inter-American Democratic Charter has helped guide the member states’ response to political crises in the hemisphere. In June of this year, responding to a request from the Nicaraguan government, the OAS General Assembly expressed concern about developments in Nicaragua that posed a threat to the separation and independence of the branches of government. Citing the Inter-American Democratic Charter and the OAS Charter, the General Assembly called for an OAS mission to help establish a broad national dialogue in that country. The week after the General Assembly session, OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza led a high-level mission to Nicaragua to support efforts to find democratic solutions to the situation. Insulza then appointed former Argentine Foreign Minister Dante Caputo as a special envoy to facilitate dialogue in Nicaragua. In mid-October the government and opposition forged an agreement designed to enhance stability and lead to a national dialogue. Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolaños thanked the OAS for its assistance in bringing about the accord. 

The OAS also sent a high-level mission to Ecuador, in response to the April 2005 change of government, “to work with officials of that country and with all sectors of Ecuadorian society in their effort to strengthen democracy.” The decision to send the mission was made at the invitation of Ecuadorian authorities and in accordance with the OAS Charter and the Democratic Charter. Based on the mission’s report, the OAS Permanent Council adopted a resolution to support the government of Ecuador, “in the context of Article 18 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, in its decision to strengthen governance and ensure respect for the rule of law, the constitutional order, and the separation and independence of the branches of government, judicial and jurisdictional functions in particular, with a view to contributing to the stability of democratic institutions in that country.” The Permanent Council encouraged the government and all political, social, and economic sectors “to maintain a wide-ranging dialogue to strengthen measures conducive to overcoming difficulties and consolidating democracy,” and instructed the Secretary General to make available the resources and experience of the OAS for any assistance Ecuador may request to support the strengthening of democracy. During a follow-up visit in July, Insulza said the OAS would give priority support to such initiatives, including the establishment of an impartial, independent Supreme Court of Justice. Insulza appointed two distinguished jurists—Sonia Picado of Costa Rica and José Antonio Viera Gallo of Chile—as his special representatives to observe the selection process for members of Ecuador’s Supreme Court.   

The Democratic Charter was first invoked in April 2002, following the coup that temporarily forced Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez out of office. The Permanent Council condemned the “alteration of the constitutional order” in Venezuela and affirmed the Organization’s willingness to further dialogue and support the democratic process in that country. Then-OAS Secretary General César Gaviria subsequently facilitated months of talks between the government and opposition, which resulted in an agreement leading to the eventual electoral referendum. 

Recently the OAS member states have been debating how to better use the Democratic Charter as a tool to prevent crises instead of merely as a guide to respond after constitutional disruptions have occurred. This was one of the key issues discussed at the June 2005 session of the General Assembly, which focused on the theme “Delivering the Benefits of Democracy.” In their Declaration of Florida, the foreign ministers instructed the Secretary General to study how the Democratic Charter has been implemented since its entry into force and after consultations with the Permanent Council, to propose “timely, effective, balanced, gradual initiatives” to address “situations that might affect the workings of the political process of democratic institutions or the legitimate exercise of power.” It reaffirmed the Secretary General’s authority to bring to the attention of the Permanent Council situations that might lead to action under the terms of the OAS Charter and the Inter-American Democratic Charter.

Development of the Democratic Charter 

The initial proposal for an Inter-American Democratic Charter came from the government of Peru, shortly before the April 2001 Summit of the Americas. In their Declaration of Quebec City, the presidents and prime ministers affirmed that the shared commitment to democracy and the rule of law is “an essential condition” for participation in the Summit process. They underscored the need to enhance the hemisphere’s ability to respond when democracy is threatened, and instructed their foreign affairs ministers to prepare a Democratic Charter “to reinforce OAS instruments for the active defense of representative democracy.” 

Immediately following the Summit, OAS representatives developed a working document for consideration by the General Assembly, which held its annual regular session in June 2001 in San Jose, Costa Rica. The General Assembly approved a draft, directing the Permanent Council to strengthen and expand it. A working group of the Permanent Council negotiated the final text, taking into account written opinions submitted by governments as well as by citizens from around the Americas. The OAS invited civil society to contribute ideas and opinions, and set up a special Web site for this purpose. The Permanent Council presented a final draft to a special session of the OAS General Assembly in Lima, Peru. On September 11—the same day terrorists launched attacks in the United States—the 34 democratic countries of the Americas adopted the Inter-American Democratic Charter. 

The Democratic Charter represents the most recent development in a long tradition of democratic commitment. The OAS Charter, adopted in 1948, calls on member states to “promote and consolidate representative democracy.” Over the years, the OAS has taken an active role in defending democracy in member countries, while respecting the principle of nonintervention enshrined in its founding charter. In 1991, it adopted Resolution 1080, which provides for an emergency meeting of the hemisphere’s foreign ministers to decide on specific collective action when democracy is interrupted. Resolution 1080 was invoked on four occasions: Haiti (1991), Peru (1992), Guatemala (1993) and Paraguay (1996). The Protocol of Washington, which amended the OAS Charter, entered into force in 1997. Under the terms of the Protocol, the OAS has the right to suspend a member state whose democratically elected government has been overthrown by force.  


Last updated: October 2005