September 11, 2001, is remembered as the day the United States received a dramatic call to lead the world in defeating terrorism. It is also the day the U.S., along with 33 nations of the Americas, signed the Inter-American Democratic Charter (IADC) committing to the collective promotion and protection of democracy. Through ten years of costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. has failed to lead the implementation of the IADC and has stood in the sidelines as democracy has eroded in the Americas. It is time to take action—a peaceful one.
Just minutes after New York City and Washington DC were hit, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell gave this moving speech in Lima, Peru, at the Organization of American States’ (OAS) General Assembly:
"A terrible, terrible tragedy has befallen my nation, but it has also befallen all of the nations of this region, all the nations of the world, and all those who believe in democracy. [Terrorists] can destroy buildings and kill people—and we will be saddened by this tragedy—but they will never be allowed to kill the spirit of democracy. They cannot destroy our society, nor our belief in the democratic way.
It is important that I remain here for a bit longer in order to be part of the consensus on this new Inter-American Democratic Charter. That is the most important thing I can do before returning to Washington DC.
I hope we can move forward in the order of business to the adoption of the Charter, because I very much want to be here to express the commitment of the United States to democracy in this hemisphere."
Powell’s word on the importance of the IADC and the U.S. commitment to democracy in the face of a massive terrorist attack is not an overstatement. Terrorist organizations are exclusively harbored and sponsored by non-democratic states that deny basic human rights to their citizens. As with the Third Reich’s Germany or the Taliban’s Afghanistan, it is no coincidence that the U.S. has never had to wage war on a democratic nation. In a world where territories and populations are governed by states, the struggle for peace is first and foremost a struggle for a democratic world comprised of a community of democratic nations.
Here’s where the IADC has a purpose. The IADC is the most ambitious pro-democracy document yet to be approved at an international level. It is the cornerstone of an emerging international law on democracy and represents a groundbreaking step toward the consolidation of democracy and human rights around the world.
Since its founding in 1948 in the wake of World War II, the OAS was ahead of its global counterpart—the United Nations—in the quest to enact international legal rules proclaiming individual rights as the only legitimate basis of government. For example, the OAS’ American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man was approved months before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and became the first international human rights document in the world.
The U.S. has been of course a leading force behind every regional and universal effort to promote democracy and human rights, so much so that both the OAS and the UN are headquartered in U.S. soil.
Through the Cold War, however, both the U.S. government and the OAS many times failed to uphold these principles by failing to condemn certain right-wing military dictators that set to rid their countries of communist caudillos and guerrillas, which were inspired and financed by communist dictator Fidel Castro or by the Soviet Union itself.
Conspicuously, the U.S. and the OAS failed to condemn the human rights abuses perpetrated by dictators Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Jorge Rafael Videla in Argentina, Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay, as well as the Bolivian, Brazilian and Uruguayan military dictatorships that collaborated in the Condor Operation—a bloody, multinational intelligence plan aimed at crushing left-wing guerrillas.
Yet, through the Cold War, both the U.S. and the OAS, along with outstanding leaders like Venezuelan President Rómulo Betancourt, still managed to condemn a set of anti-democratic governments. Between 1948 and 1990, the OAS approved resolutions condemning Rafael Trujillo in 1960, Fidel Castro in 1962, Anastasio Somoza in 1979, and Manuel Noriega in 1989.
Through this period, coups d’état were perceived as the main threat to democracy—so Article 9 of the OAS Charter was amended in 1997 to include a democracy clause. This provision called for the suspension from the OAS of governments that rose to power by overthrowing a democratically-elected leader.
Soon, the fall of outright dictatorships in the region, except the one in Cuba, led to a new, more subtle threat: elected leaders that erode democracy from within.
Once voted into office in 1990, Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori shut down an opposing congress, eliminated the judiciary’s independence, persecuted political opponents and censored the independent media. Timidly, the OAS condemned Fujimori and sent a monitoring mission of diplomats to Peru in 1999.
Fujimori and the weak OAS response facing democratic erosion were the reasons why the new government of Peru under Valentín Paniagua promoted and prepared the first draft of the IADC, and the reason why Colin Powell was in Lima on 9/11.
The IADC (Articles 3, 4, and 17-21) gave the OAS Secretary-General and any OAS member-state the legal authority to convene the OAS Permanent Council and General Assembly to analyze democratic crises, establish diplomatic missions to prevent democratic breakdowns, and potentially suspend a non-democratic government.
The IADC can be applied in two ways—preventively and correctively. Early stages of democratic erosion should prompt the “preventive application” of the clause in order to pressure the government to stop and overturn its anti-democratic actions, but this is only useful until erosion becomes so sustained and systematic that it has produced an interruption or alteration that seriously impairs the democratic order.
According to this new democracy clause, not only those who cease power through coups must be suspended from the OAS, but the democratically-elected rulers that choose to erode democracy from within should follow the same fate.
Under this standard, it was right to suspend the Honduras of Roberto Micheletti from participation at the OAS, but the democracy clause should also be applied to the Venezuela of Hugo Chávez, the Bolivia of Evo Morales, the Ecuador of Rafael Correa, the Nicaragua of Daniel Ortega, and—most recently—even the Panama of Ricardo Martinelli or the Argentina of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
Sadly, the OAS Secretary-General along with the democratic countries that convene periodically under its flag in Washington DC, including the U.S. itself, are failing to fulfill their mission to collectively promote democracy. With this, the people in nations ruled by increasingly authoritarian governments turn to the OAS to no avail.
In today’s Venezuela, law-abiding citizens can be imprisoned for “offending” President Chávez. His voice is the only real, free voice in the country; elections can hardly be called free and fair anymore. Regarding Venezuela, the OAS should now act in a corrective manner and suspend the Venezuelan government from participation at the OAS.
In the cases of Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, the preventive application of the democracy clause has been due in numerous prior opportunities, as Correa and Morales were maneuvering their ways into rewriting their countries’ constitutions, extending term limits and grabbing full control over legislatures and judiciaries.
An Ecuadorian court just awarded President Correa $40 million for having been insulted in an newspaper editorial that called him a “dictator.” The person that wrote the opinion piece and the four major shareholders of the journal that published it were all sentenced to three years in prison. Similarly, critical journalists and newspapers suffer periodical reprisals in Martinelli’s Panama and Kirchner’s Argentina.
Today any OAS member-state could bring each of the aforementioned cases to the OAS Permanent Council. A vote of 23 of the 34 member states—two-thirds—is all that is needed to pass resolutions condemning anti-democratic government actions, or even decide on the suspension of governments that show complete disdain for the IADC’s principles.
The OAS’ lackluster record is something that could swiftly turn around if the U.S. government led a serious diplomatic effort aimed at implementing the principles and rules of the IADC.
It is hard to believe that a U.S. State Department that was able to rally troops from 38 nations from every corner of the world—including four Central American countries—into war in Iraq, would not be able to gather the signature of 22 fellow diplomats living in Washington DC for resolutions that call on hemispheric leaders to adhere to the IADC, respect freedom of expression and uphold judicial independence. As if the OAS were doing just fine, last year the U.S. even failed to propose an alternative candidate to current Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza.
On 9/11, the U.S. was called upon to lead with resolve. But this call went far beyond the urgent need to quash terrorist organizations in the Middle East and bring their members to justice. Terrorists do not feed off of transparent, accountable governments. They feed off the darkness of closed societies under non-democratic regimes.
As we approach the ten-year anniversary of 9/11, the U.S. should work to promote freedom and democracy around the world in a peaceful way, through trade and multilateral diplomatic channels—long before authoritarian governments shut the windows on their own people. The Americas need this type of leadership.
Javier El-Hage is a guest blogger to AQ Online. He is general counsel of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation and the author of HRF’s report, The Facts and the Law Behind the Democratic Crisis of Honduras, 2009-2010.