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June 3, 2014 - Asunción, Paraguay

My thanks to you, President Cartes, to your government, and especially to Foreign Minister Eladio Loizaga and the entire staff of his ministry, for the warm welcome extended to us in Asunción and for the care you have taken in preparing for this forty-fourth regular session of the General Assembly of the Organization of American States. I only hope we can respond to such generosity and efficiency with an Assembly that meets the expectations we have set for it.

Holding an Assembly on Paraguayan soil, for the second time, is a source of great satisfaction to us. This country is one of the founders of the Pan American Union, played a decisive role in establishing the OAS in 1948, and has always supported the Organization’s work. When the twentieth regular session of the Assembly was held in Asunción in 1990, this beloved country had just reclaimed its democracy and was becoming part of the new democratic Hemisphere taking shape everywhere at that time. It was a period marked by uncertainty but also by many convictions and hopes. We have returned to Paraguay today to express once again to its President, all its political forces, and its people our respect and support for their efforts to build an increasingly prosperous, democratic, and just nation.

Mr. President, Foreign Ministers, and Delegates:

Although I have attended numerous OAS General Assembly sessions, first as the Minister of Foreign Affairs of my country and then as Secretary General, I never cease to be surprised, in this era of so many Summits, by the permanence and relevance of this Meeting of Ministers of Foreign Affairs. In my view, this reflects the strength and vitality that the oldest political organization in the world, headed by the Foreign Ministers of the Americas, has maintained through a period of huge transformations.

In the midst of ever present debate, analysis and proposals regarding its future, the OAS goes about serving its primary purpose: providing the countries of the Americas with a political forum where everything can be said, where there is genuine dialogue, in which everyone can participate on an equal footing, air views on any subject relevant to the region, and be treated with dignity and respect. Hopefully, this will always be the case, especially in the framework of democracy and freedom in which we live.

The principal legal instruments governing our system have been signed in the OAS. They include the OAS Charter itself; the Pact of Bogotá, on the peaceful settlement of disputes; the American Convention on Human Rights (Pact of San José); the Protocol of San Salvador, on economic and social rights; the Declaration of Belém do Pará, on violence against women; the Inter-American Democratic Charter; the Social Charter of the Americas; the Declaration of Mexico on multidimensional security; the Inter-American Convention against Corruption; the inter-American Convention on disabilities; the Inter-American Convention against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives and Other Related Materials, and the recent conventions against all forms of discrimination and against racism, as well as many other treaties and agreements.

Also deposited in our Secretariat are the instruments that created the Inter-American Development Bank, the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture, the Inter-American Commission of Women, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the Inter-American Children’s Institute, the Pan American Health Organization, the Pan American Institute of Geography and History, and other entities.

In short, the OAS is the depositary for laws and institutions in the Americas—laws and institutions that are vigorous and dynamic and that we hope to strengthen with each passing day. This is the backbone for everything that we, the peoples of the Americas—those of North, Central, and South America and those of the Caribbean—have dreamed about and achieved together.

But the OAS is not only that. Rather and primarily, it is a set of action programs that are carried out day after day. Allow me to mention just a few.

Electoral observation and cooperation. From 1962 to 2004, we conducted 121 observation missions and in the decade since then, including those conducted in the past six months, we will complete more than 100.

A few days ago, I signed the Executive Order establishing the International Electoral Accreditation Body within the OAS, which is essential to breathe life into a new standard, ISO 17582, which will enable the electoral bodies in our member states and those of other states in the world, that so request, to obtain official certification of their electoral processes in respect of eight different dimensions, ranging from the registration of candidates to monitoring of funding.

There are numerous activities and programs worth mentioning: the activities of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights; action against drug trafficking and abuse; public security; the development of international law; the Scholarship Program, the social protection program, the promotion of integral development; the Mission to Support the Peace Process in Colombia; the Belize-Guatemala Adjacency Zone Mission; the Demining Program, which has been successfully completed in Central America and is underway in Colombia; the firearms marking program, the Effective Public Management program; the Civil Identity Program; the Mechanism for Follow-up on Implementation of the Inter-American Convention against Corruption (MESICIC); the work of the Inter-American Commission of Women; the Judicial Facilitators Program; the OAS Model Assemblies; the ongoing dialogue with civil society. And many more.

On the occasion of this General Assembly session, we will be distributing a very detailed account of all our activities. I invite you to examine it, so as to grasp the variety, vast scope and quality of the work this Organization does.

Yet, with the same emphasis that I underscore our activities and achievements, I would like to state clearly that the OAS in no way claims to be the only representative body in the Americas. On the contrary, we recognize and appreciate the emergence of new regional organizations and forums that, in a context of increasing globalization, perform tasks outside the purview of the OAS. We are not in the business of competing, but rather of cooperating for the good of our member states.

It is our intention to have the best possible relations with those organizations and forums, such as UNASUR, SICA, CARICOM, CELAC, MERCOSUR, the Andean Community, SELA, and the OECS, and to provide them with every service at our disposal.

Likewise, now is the time to recall that, based on our many strengths, we are now committed to redefining our hemispheric agenda and our priorities. This is a process we initiated two and a half years ago, when I presented the first document on a Strategic Vision to the Permanent Council. A year later, I submitted a more complete version, and this year the Permanent Council engaged in a debate that has resulted in a resolution now before this Assembly.

The starting point for this exercise is, as it should be, the new reality facing the Hemisphere and how it affects multilateral relations among member states. My Strategic Vision proposal is based on the present-day requirements of the region’s society, which has been transformed in recent decades.

Mr. President, Foreign Ministers:

The decade from 2002 to 2012 was an exceptional period for the Americas. Latin America’s gross domestic product grew to more than 6 trillion dollars, thus greatly increasing its share of the world market. For the first time in its history, the region enjoyed a combination of high growth, macroeconomic stability, poverty reduction, and even a marginal improvement in income distribution. While the economies of the north were battered by the economic crisis, the size and sway of that crisis were kept in check in the region and our success in overcoming it is good news for the Hemisphere as a whole.

Over 60 million people escaped from poverty during the same period. According to ECLAC, poverty fell from 43.9 percent in 2002 to 28.8 percent in 2012. Although the term “middle class,” attributed to those who crossed the poverty line, is deceptive, the number of people classified as lower middle income in the region is for the first time equal to those living in poverty. Levels of compliance with the Millennium Development Goals are positive in almost all the countries.

The new decade also saw a consolidation of democracy, in three respects. First of all, on September 11, 2001, the countries of the Americas signed the Inter-American Democratic Charter, effectively clearing the path for a new era of regional politics, in which democracy, as a form of government and social organization, shifted from being a shared aspiration to being a right of citizens and an obligation freely assumed by the states of the region.

Second, a succession of democratic elections took place everywhere and at all levels. The OAS has 93 elections in the last nine years. By and large, these elections have been free and secret, with high voter turnouts and unchallenged results and, in many cases, with a transfer of power from one political faction to another.

Third, good governance has grown tremendously in the member states. Whereas 16 governments did not serve out their full terms between 1990 and 2015, this occurred only twice during my terms as Secretary General of the OAS.

In short, our region has changed immensely, for the good, in its economy, its society, and its politics. The question facing us today is whether, under somewhat different economic circumstances, we will be able to effectively tackle the major problems still besetting our democracies, in order to make them more stable, fair, and effective in responding to citizens’ demands.

If our region wishes to continue its democratic development and enjoy sound comprehensive growth, it must take on four pressing political challenges: social inclusion, public security, the defense of human rights, and expansion of democracy and the rule of law.

These are the challenges behind our strategic vision. If we want to strengthen the OAS, it will have to be based on our definition of and response to those challenges. Hence the importance of this General Assembly session and the lucidity with which the Government of Paraguay and President Cartes proposed that we analyze the theme of social inclusion -- the first great challenge facing the Hemisphere – and seek solutions to a problem besetting our democracies today.

Mr. President, Foreign Ministers, Vice Foreign Ministers, Delegates:

We have to recognize that while the spread of democracy and stronger economic growth have made it possible to reduce poverty and improve prospects for a better life for many people, these achievements have not made our countries’ societies more egalitarian. On the contrary, continued injustice in the distribution of wealth and in access to social goods threatens to damage our democratic social fabric.

Let me remind you, at this point, of a magnificent statement made by President John. F. Kennedy, who, during his inauguration on January 20, 1961 said: “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”

This is a hemispheric problem given that the most developed countries of the region also face growing inequality and accumulation of wealth in a small number of households while excluding large sectors of the population. Inequality has not declined sufficiently in the developing world and has risen in the developed world.

In Latin America, the richest 10 percent of the population receive 32 percent of total income while the poorest 40 percent receive only 15 percent. The most egalitarian country in Latin America has the same Gini coefficient as the most unequal country in Asia.

One third of Latin America’s total population still lives in households with an income of 4 to 10 dollars a day. From a statistical point of view, these people have moved out of the poverty that still besets over 167 million Latin Americans, but it makes no sense to call them “middle class.” In fact, they number among the millions of “non poor” whose income range makes them extremely vulnerable.

Half of extremely poor adults (25 to 65 years of age) have not completed primary school. Those who finished primary but not secondary school make up 45 percent of the non-indigent poor. Among the poor, less than 1 percent has made it through higher education.

On the other hand, people under 17 years of age make up 51 percent of the extremely poor and 45 percent of the non-indigent poor in Latin America. In other words, almost half of the poor are children, which holds out bleak prospects for their future.

Inequality is not only manifested in the enormous disparity of incomes. It is also the result of discrimination based on class, race, gender, sexual orientation, geographical origin, and physical capacity, which are reflected in a situation of social inequity incompatible with our democratic ideals.

Women, the poor, the indigenous, persons of African descent, migrants, persons with disabilities, homosexuals, and informal sector workers have an initial disadvantage in society compared to people who are not of that gender, economic status, race, or migratory status or who do not have those physical characteristics or that sexual orientation or employment status. Generally these categories entail different economic conditions, access to services, public protection, and educational or job opportunities that ultimately lead to social exclusion. These groupings may have evolved differently but no one can deny that their common effect will be to make their members more vulnerable to abuse, exclusion, and/or discrimination. “We indigenous” — as one of their leaders told me yesterday — are not poor or vulnerable; rather we were rendered poor and vulnerable.”

In short, economic vulnerability is compounded by problems stemming, among other things, from:

- Unequal access to basic public services, such as education, health, potable water, housing, security, and public transportation;

- Discrimination, which still affects women, indigenous peoples and persons of African descent, migrants, persons with disabilities, and other socially vulnerable groups;

- Inadequate conditions for the exercise of human rights, such as access to justice and freedom of expression;

- Informal labor, which places a large number of workers in precarious positions as far as employment and income are concerned, depriving them of the protection to which they are entitled; and

- Unequal opportunities to take part in political life, both in voting itself and in the possibility of actually influencing the actions of public institutions.

All these forms of discrimination, or “categorical inequality,” are spelled out in the book on Inequality and Social Exclusion in the Americas, published for this Assembly by the General Secretariat.

The discontent caused by situations like those I have just described is at the root of the public demands visible in the streets of our Hemisphere. Indeed, recent social movements in various countries of the region are not the seeds of a revolution but rather a demand for better living conditions under an enhanced democracy. And this demand will continue to grow, because the protest is headed in many cases by the young majority of our hemispheric population, represented in and across all categories of discrimination.

That is why the debate on inequality and exclusion must cease to be purely political and move to the sphere of public policy. Today, we are well aware that the market does not distribute resources and that the decisions states may take to improve distribution are what make the market economy compatible with democracy.

It is true that in the economic process positive factors, such as acquired knowledge and skills or investment in science and technology, can induce a virtuous circle and trigger better income distribution, but the policy decisions of governments are also important in this regard.

In the area of public policy and where a strong desire exists to combat such enormous inequalities, there is always a risk that excesses may affect investment and economic growth. The role of politics and of politicians, acting responsibly and with respect for the rule of law, is to strike a proper balance between growth and policies for social inclusion and redistribution of income. The search for broad agreements between social stakeholders and politicians is probably the least costly way of addressing inequality.

The political answer has been expounded many times and lies in the direction of a constitutional state rooted in the rule of law and able to deliver the following five essentials:

1) “A social protection floor,” that is to say a set of basic public services (including education, health, housing, public safety and social security) for all its citizens, in keeping with the country’s level of economic development;

2) An economy that provides decent work for men and women on an equal footing;

3) Equal opportunities for all its citizens, and the eradication of all discriminatory factors;

4) A tax system that redistributes while at the same time providing sufficient funding for a democratic, effective, and transparent State; and

5) Political participation mechanisms that allow citizens appropriate oversight over the observance of their rights.

Many of the answers to the questions we pose today are broadly addressed in the Declaration of Asunción, which this Assembly must discuss and adopt. The principal forms .

Hence, the importance of this General Assembly session and of the insight shown by the Paraguayan Government and by President Cartes in proposing this topic for us to examine it and find solutions. Many of the answers to the questions we are asking today are addressed in general in the Declaration of Asunción, which this Assembly is called upon to discuss and adopt. The principal forms of exclusion and possible policies are set forth in the Report we have prepared for this meeting and in the contributions to this subject of numerous national and international organizations. But action, whether individual or concerted, has to come from the member states. It is the governments of the Hemisphere that must take on, and are taking on, that task, which our democracies dare not elude. We trust that they will share their experiences with this Assembly.

Our governments have made great headway in this area in recent decades. We started out with governments that were very weak and, owing to the ideological content of our policies in the 1980s and 1990s, ill prepared to meet these citizen demands. Even though, as a result of the democratic process, our countries have grown stronger and have undertaken important programs to combat poverty and substantially increase access to public services, they still have shortcomings that prevent them from satisfying all that their citizens expect from their democracies.

We are convinced that the strengthening of democracy is very closely tied to the precepts of our Inter-American Democratic Charter. It is through the full exercise of the political, civil, and social citizenship that the IADC embraces that we can attain our goal of making this Hemisphere much more democratic and, with less poverty than before, also more just.

Mr. President, Minsters of Foreign Affairs, Delegates, and Distinguished Guests

I wish now to refer to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which all member states are part of. This Commission has seen the number of complaints filed with it for human rights violations from 6,417 in 1997-2004 to 14,133 cases in the period between 2005 and 2013, which is more than ample proof of the growing confidence the citizens of the Americas place in it. In just this past year, five times more complaints were filed than in 1997. The number of cases referred by the Commission to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights also increased: from 54 in 1997-2004 to 120 in 2005-2013, which testifies to the effectiveness of the Commission’s work.

The inter-American human rights system is one of the great strengths of our Organization, which has raised its status and prestige throughout the Hemisphere and far beyond it.

The General Assembly session held in San Salvador in 2011 triggered a debate about strengthening the system, inspired by the need to broaden dialogue between the member states, the Court and the Commission, with contributions from civil society. That debate culminated in a Report that was adopted at the General Assembly regular session in Cochabamba, in 2012, and implemented by a special session a few months later.

The outcomes of that process were almost unanimously welcomed as successful. Dialogue between the Commission and the member states has been enriched and the IACHR has, within its sphere of autonomy, satisfactorily implemented the reforms it was asked to undertake. Yet some member states have insisted on further reforms.

Initially, my Office fostered the debate and even agreed that, even though it is not contemplated in the Convention, a meeting of the States Parties might be useful for achieving the goal of universal jurisdiction of the Court and a materially more robust system.

Today, however, I consider that this process has clearly gone in directions quite different from those originally imagined. Today, some member states are being excluded from the discussions and the matters being debated have to do with processes, such as transferring the Commission’s headquarters and others, that are highly costly, of dubious usefulness, and unlikely to elicit a consensus.

I do not question the right of any state to try and reform the system. But that should be done by amending the corresponding rules and almost all of them are enshrined in the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights, which are amended by the General Assembly. Moreover, as they are treaties, they require ratification in each country.

Placing the issue of the IACHR’s headquarters at the center of the discussions has made them more confusing. The argument is that to host an organ, a country should belong to it. But the Commission functions in Washington and the host country is part of the Commission established in the Charter. The Court functions in Costa Rice and the host country is part of the Court, established in the Convention. The General Secretariat provides secretariat services to the Commission and naturally does so at its headquarters, established in Article 76 of the Charter.

In short, Mr. President, I consider it my duty to point out something that is already obvious. This is not a strengthening process. It is a long and painful debate with no beneficial results. It can only weaken and divide us, jeopardizing one of the great strengths of this Organization.

I do not want to open a debate in an Assembly that was not convened for that purpose. I suggest that our Permanent Council, with all its members and full participation by the members of the Commission, whom you have elected, examine the best way to take a new approach to this matter. The Commission can agree to meet in other countries and I am sure that, if there are member states that invite it, it would have no problem in accepting. We can also revive the dialogue with countries that are not members, but, if we do, we should not exclude them a priori. In short, let us do what is legally feasible without amending the Charter or the Convention and what is politically feasible without creating divisions among ourselves.

Mr. President and esteemed friends.

Our Organization has played a fundamental political role in our Hemisphere for the past decade. The ideological differences that have surfaced within it have not thwarted its mission of unity and cooperation. On the contrary, they have strengthened it as the forum for discussion: the best antidote to conflict.

It is for that reason that I appeal to you all to engage in constructive debate, to open up room for understanding and agreements, for solutions that benefit society as a whole in our Hemisphere. That is the spirit in which I have served as Secretary General of the Organization. The quest for points of consensus is sometimes complex and occasionally frustrating, but let us not abandon that endeavor because, in the end, solutions arrived at by consensus are more robust and longer-lasting.

Thank you very much.