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Press Release


  May 24, 2007

The Inter-American Democratic Charter has become the most important guideline for determining democratic norms in the inter-American system, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), José Miguel Insulza, said today. During a forum at the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, Insulza reviewed key elements of the landmark document, underscored its positive results and reflected on some of its limitations.

The forum—“Challenges to Democracy in the Americas: The Role of the Inter-American Democratic Charter”—brought together high-level experts for a discussion that focused on the future role the Democratic Charter can play in the region. The forum was moderated by Inter-American Dialogue President Peter Hakim and included the participation of Thomas Shannon and Barry Lowenkron of the U.S. State Department, among others.

Insulza began his remarks recalling that within the last few years, an active debate has been taking place on the meaning of democracy, and he stressed the importance of defining its fundamental nature. He noted that the OAS Charter specifies the basic elements the system must include and mentioned among them citizen participation, periodic elections, the separation of powers, the rule of law, human rights, freedom of expression and of the press, ideological pluralism, a system for regulating political party financing, and transparency, responsibility and probity in public administration.

In this context, the Secretary General warned that although the Democratic Charter—which was adopted on September 11, 2001, by the Foreign Ministers of the Americas—outlines a clear definition of democracy, it does not specify ways to “follow up on” or “promote” democracy, and therefore that task is left to the OAS.

Conducting an overall assessment or evaluation of democracy in a particular country is not contemplated under the Democratic Charter, said Insulza, who noted that the countries of the region jealously guard their sovereignty. “In Latin American and the Caribbean, any matter of evaluating democracy will not be acceptable,” Insulza said. He added that the OAS does, however, play a key role in following up on the progress of individual elements included in the Charter, in such areas as corruption, freedom of expression, human rights, gender issues and election standards.

Although the Democratic Charter spells out procedures to take when democracy is “at risk,” Insulza said, it does not necessarily specify what conditions would constitute a basis for action. “I am of the notion that this matter should be defined,” he said.

Building on the Secretary General’s remarks, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Thomas Shannon, emphasized the need for civil society to play a stronger role in the promotion and evaluation of democracy in the Americas. “Democracy is not just a question of government; it is also a question of political civil citizenship, which means building networks of democratic interaction at all levels of society,” Shannon said. He added that “ultimately the challenge we face in the region is one of democratic governance and is one of making sure that democracy can deliver the goods and address the social and economic agenda that we face in the region.”

The U.S. Secretary for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Barry Lowenkron, highlighted the need to ensure accountability of weak governments and institutions and also noted that civil society is increasingly becoming an important part of this process. These groups have become an important part of a democracy by “shining a spotlight” on the problems and ensuring that the commitments enshrined on the Democratic Charter are met, he said. Lowenkron noted that the Charter provides a framework to guide governments on the principles of democracy, such as transparent elections, a free press and democratic governance, but underscored that “the Charter should be used as a floor and not a ceiling in terms of aspirations.”

Reference: E-135/07