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Help Wanted at the Organization of American States

You’d never know it, but there’s a pretty big election coming up later this month at the Organization for American States (OAS). On Wednesday, March 3, representatives from the member states of the OAS (35 in total minus Cuba and Honduras) meet in a special session to formally introduce candidates to become the tenth secretary general.

The mission of the OAS, founded more than 60 years ago, is to promote and strengthen representative democracy, development and security, to act as the forum for governments in the hemisphere and to ensure peaceful settlement of disputes.

That’s a pretty tall order.

The current secretary general, José Miguel Insulza, wants to serve for another five-year term and recently said confidently that he would be confirmed on March 24. He needs to get at least 17 votes.

For the last year or so, current and former government officials have been murmuring that Insulza failed to lead the OAS and fulfill its mission. Instead, Insulza sat passively by as the executive powers in Venezuela, Honduras, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Ecuador gradually whittled away at the authority of the legislative and judicial branches. This weakening of democracies undermined the credibility and value of the OAS.

Those whispers against Insulza grew louder and more frequent following the January release of a report commissioned by Senator Richard Lugar, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member, examining the OAS from top-to-bottom.

The Senate report accuses the OAS of a selective defense of democracy, namely in favor of leftist governments. Pointing to Venezuela in 2002 and Honduras in 2009, “the OAS reacted forcefully to the democratic interruption, yet it had demonstrably failed to respond to the erosion of democratic institutions by elected presidents that preceded the coups” and furthermore the OAS has so far failed to use existing tools to develop effective early warning mechanisms against threats to democratic stability.

Indeed, the secretary-general and member states failed to use the 2001 Inter-American Democratic Charter as a proactive tool in Venezuela and Honduras, as well as in a number of other countries (Nicaragua leaps to mind). So, we just stand by and watch gradual democratic degradation until another Honduras-like situation explodes?

The lack of action, and the hesitancy to do so, represents a lost opportunity and a loss of the OAS’s potential authority and leadership.

Another major challenge facing the OAS is its budget and overall financial management.

Rather, it’s more like a crisis than a challenge at this point. The OAS was in the red before Insulza came into office; one of his pledges was to correct the budget shortfalls. The numbers are in, and the situation is more dire than several years ago. That could be expected amid the economic global meltdown. But is there a plan on how to staunch the financial blood loss?

Still—even amid these criticisms—Insulza can breathe easy that he’ll be reelected, if for no other reason that he’s the only candidate.

Only one candidate? What does it say about the health, or the state of apathy—in our region if we only have one candidate? Is the position so undesirable? Too impossible of a task with the tools on hand?

Maybe this bureaucracy should fall by the wayside. Or at least some of the fat.

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton once dryly observed that if the United Nations Secretariat building lost ten of its 38 stories, “it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.” “There's not a bureaucracy in the world that couldn't be made leaner,” Bolton had said before he set about on a mission to reform the UN.

Perhaps we should be saying a similar thing about the OAS?

Perhaps a reform-minded and assertive secretary general could save the institution from financial and political insolvency.

Meanwhile, younger regional bodies, such as the Rio Group, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and now this newly created body that excludes Canada and the U.S. further reduce the relevancy of the OAS. Perhaps these concerns arise because of the OAS’s structure, and not so much because of its leadership. To be sure, the concept of acting by consensus—or two-thirds of the vote, according to the official rules—will most likely yield low-impact results.

When the founders wrote the OAS charter 60-some years ago, perhaps they did not imagine the polarization that exists today.

So, what if a commission akin to the UN Security Council, modeled after the OAS’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, was established?

The idea of having a UN Security Council-like mechanism seems like a good one, but the chances of it happening are very slim: it would require consensus among the Permanent Council members. And obtaining that consensus is highly unlikely, said an official who served as an alternate representative at the OAS.

Before we grope for other mechanisms to make the OAS more effective at defending democracies, we need to first try using the tools it already has. But for that, you need a proactive secretary general who will use the offices, staff and the bully pulpit formally and informally to shape the agenda.

In recent interviews, Insulza talked about the “legal limitations” of a secretary general that hindered him from being more assertive. He seems to think he’s unempowered. That shows.

It is very telling that the Obama administration has consistently deflected questions as to whether it supports Insulza’s reelection bid. At least on record.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly made her displeasure clear, telling outgoing Chilean President Michelle Bachelet the U.S. would not give Insulza the thumbs up, according to a July 2009 article in Chile’s El Mercurio newspaper.

Today, Clinton visits Bachelet and incoming President Sebastian Piñera in Santiago, Chile. The main topic of public discussion will likely be the horrific earthquake—not the OAS.

Last Friday afternoon, Clinton met with Insulza, but the State Department offered no read out of their meeting. That silence spoke volumes.

If the Obama administration wants to send the message that it will not support weak multilateral institutions just because it supports multilateralism, it need not fund the OAS until it guarantees certain deliverables, beginning with a streamlined budget reflecting realistic priorities and a plan to enhance the proactive protection of representative democracies of its member states. The U.S. is the top source of funding—$47 million in 2009—and is responsible for nearly 60 percent of the member state quota and nearly 40 percent of the overall OAS budget.

The administration can even defer this unpleasant job to Congress, as it controls the purse strings and has so far had a major impact on Latin America policy.

If the OAS is to stay alive and relevant, we need a Bolton-like bull in this antique china shop. Not another five years of hesitancy and helplessness. Remember, March 24 looms as the deadline for countries to put forth candidates.

*Liz Harper is an americasquarterly.org contributing blogger based in Washington DC. To reach a blogger, send an email to: aqinfo@as-coa.org

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Jose Miguel Insulza, Hillary Clinton, Inter-American Democratic Charter, UNASUR, Organization for American States, Senator Richard Lugar

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