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 promote and defend it.” In 28 articles, this landmark document
adopted on September 11, 2001spells out what democracy entails and specifies how it should be defended when it is under threat. It gives the governments of the hemisphere a new compass to guide their collective action when democracy faces challenges.

Why is the Inter-American Democratic Charter significant?

      It reflects the current political will of 34 democratic nations. The Democratic Charter responds directly to a mandate from the presidents and prime ministers of the Americas, who stated a few months ago in Quebec City that the hemisphere needed to enhance its ability to respond when democracy is under threat.

      It defines, for the first time, what the OAS member countries agree are the essential elements of democracy.

      It establishes procedures to undertake not only when democracy is completely interrupted, as in a coup, but when it is seriously altered and democracy is at risk. Because the governments have agreed on the essential elements of democracy, they have a template from which to evaluate deviations.

      It builds on and strengthens the legal underpinnings of democracy in the hemisphere. Added to the principles and practices that have evolved over the years within the OAS, the Democratic Charter provides another tool with which to defend democracy.


Development of the Charter

The initial proposal for an Inter-American Democratic Charter came from the transitional government of Peru, shortly before the April 2001 Summit of the Americas. In their Declaration of Quebec City, the leaders 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.”

Following the Summit, OAS representatives developed a working document for consideration by the General Assembly, which held its annual regular session June 3-5 in San Jose, Costa Rica. The General Assembly approved a draft, directing the Permanent Council to strengthen and expand it by September. A working group of the Permanent Council, led by Ambassador Humberto de la Calle of Colombia, 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.

On September 6, the Permanent Council approved a final draft, which was presented to the hemisphere’s foreign ministers during a special session of the OAS General Assembly in Lima, Peru. The 34 democratic countries of the Americas signed the Inter-American Democratic Charter on September 11.


Background: Defending Democracy

The OAS Charter 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. OAS actions have varied, depending on the situation. In some cases—most recently in Ecuador and Paraguay—the OAS Permanent Council has swiftly condemned actions taken against governments and played a role in restoring order. In Peru, the issue wasn’t an armed threat, but divisive elections. At the government’s invitation, the OAS 2000 General Assembly sent a special mission to Peru, which coordinated a far-reaching dialogue on democratic reform. In Haiti, the OAS has sought to promote dialogue since the controversial May 2000 elections.

In the last decade, the OAS has created tools to respond to crises. 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 has been a key factor in helping to manage crises in the hemisphere. It has been invoked on four occasions: Haiti (1991), Peru (1992), Guatemala (1993) and Paraguay (1996).

The Protocol of Washington has given the OAS another tool to use in defense of democracy. Under the terms of the Protocol, which amended the OAS Charter, the Organization has the right to suspend a member state whose democratically elected government has been overthrown by force. The Protocol of Washington took effect in September 1997, following ratification by two-thirds of its signatories.

In Quebec City, the hemisphere’s leaders sought to fortify democracy further with a strong “democratic clause” in the Summit Declaration and with the instruction to the General Assembly to prepare an Inter-American Democratic Charter. In Lima, the foreign ministers followed through with this mandate, further strengthening the region's commitment to democracy.