Why the OAS Matters to All of Us

Saunders Portrait 2022
File photo: Sir Ronald Saunders.
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By Sir Ronald Sanders

 

On June 28, 2024, Antigua and Barbuda offered to host the 2025 General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS). I issued the invitation, on behalf of the country’s Prime Minister, Gaston Browne, and it was unanimously accepted by all member states at the 54th Regular General Assembly in Paraguay.

Why would a small country like Antigua and Barbuda take on the responsibility of hosting high-level delegates from Canada, the US, and Mexico in the North to Brazil and Argentina in the South, with the countries of the Caribbean in between? The simple answer is that there is immense value in the OAS, particularly to small states, which rely on the commitments of much larger states, especially their neighbours, to respect and honour territorial integrity. By hosting an OAS General Assembly, Antigua and Barbuda would demonstrate its belief in the value of the Organization and remind all others of the necessity of equity, inclusion, and dialogue in addressing challenges and opportunities.

Regrettably, in many of the countries of the OAS, not enough is known about the Organization and what it does. Yet, the OAS has been crucially important to the well-being of all its member states and to their relations with each other. The nations of the Americas have enjoyed a remarkable period of peace, having not experienced major wars between them since 1935. In contrast, regions such as Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa have been plagued by numerous wars, resulting in millions of deaths, shifting borders, and persistent hostility. This enduring peace in the Americas has allowed borders to remain stable, fostering an environment conducive to investment, social improvement, and economic development.

The maintenance of this peace is largely due to the 77-year-old OAS. From its early beginnings, the OAS established principles in its binding charter, committing every member state to two fundamental undertakings: “To strengthen the peace and security of the continent” and “To prevent possible causes of difficulties and to ensure the pacific settlement of disputes that may arise among the Member States.”

The OAS charter also obliged each of its member states to accept that “International law is the standard of conduct of States in their reciprocal relations” and that “International order consists essentially of respect for the personality, sovereignty, and independence of States, and the faithful fulfilment of obligations derived from treaties and other sources of international law.”

Member states of the Organization also bound themselves to the principle that “The American States condemn war of aggression,” adding that “victory does not give rights.” By signing up to the OAS Charter, member states accepted that “Controversies of an international character arising between two or more American States shall be settled by peaceful procedures.” Consequently, all disputes that have arisen between states have been peacefully settled – or are being voluntarily addressed – at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

The one recent aberration to this general rule has been Venezuela’s aggression toward Guyana following the Maduro government’s withdrawal from the OAS in 2019. But even amid acts of aggression, Venezuela is now participating in the ICJ process with Guyana, as are Belize and Guatemala over their territorial controversy.

From its inception, the OAS has been pivotal in maintaining peace and stability in the Americas. Through its Charters and organs, it has established a binding framework of law that governs relations among member states across various domains. With over 100 Inter-American treaties covering areas from the peaceful settlement of disputes to family, commercial, and criminal matters, the OAS provides a comprehensive legal structure that supports peaceful coexistence.

Were it not for these OAS treaties, matters such as fighting organized crime, and cooperation on tackling trafficking in persons, guns, and drugs would have been left to limited national resources. No country – not even the biggest and richest – would have met these challenges without the framework for inter-American cooperation that the OAS has provided.

A significant contribution of the OAS is its role in promoting democratic governance, human rights, and the rule of law. The organization’s efforts have been crucial in countries where these principles have been gravely and persistently violated, helping to prevent contagion to other countries. For example, the Inter-American Democratic Charter, adopted in 2001, outlines the commitment of member states to democratic principles and has been a crucial tool in addressing democratic crises in the region.

The attempted coup d’état in Bolivia on June 26, 2024, highlights the importance of the OAS in responding to threats to constitutional regimes. By immediately condemning actions that threatened democracy and the rule of law and warning of the serious consequences, OAS member states demonstrated their collective commitment to safeguarding democratic values and ensuring the stability of member states.

The OAS’s involvement in building national electoral infrastructure and overseeing elections is another key aspect of its work. Ensuring free, fair, and transparent elections is vital for the legitimacy of governance and the fostering of public trust in democratic institutions. The OAS played a pivotal role in the peaceful transfer of power to President Irfaan Ali in Guyana in 2020 and to President Bernardo Arévalo in Guatemala in 2024 – both of whom were democratically elected in internationally-monitored elections. These successes not only reinforced political stability in these countries but also created conditions for economic development and social improvement.

Haiti serves as another example of the OAS’s critical role. Despite the immense challenges faced by Haiti, the OAS has consistently worked to stabilize the nation and support its development, including through the work of the OAS mission to Haiti in 2016, which I led, to ensure that a transitional national government was established, in accordance with the Haitian Constitution, to replace the expired government of Michel Martelly. As an organization, the OAS has always pursued a broad vision of Haitian stability and progress, based on social and economic development. Gangs evolved in local circumstances, despite the work of the OAS.

The passage of Hurricane Beryl across several Caribbean countries, leaving death and destruction in its wake, especially in the smaller islands of Grenada and St Vincent and the Grenadines, underscores the importance of the organization’s voice in galvanizing international action to curb the impacts of climate change and to operationalize the “loss and damage” fund, pledged by the large polluting nations at UN Climate Change conferences. That voice will be raised loudly.

The OAS is a cornerstone of peace, stability, and development in the Americas. Its contributions have created a more stable and prosperous region, demonstrating the power of cooperation and legal frameworks. The value of the OAS is clear, and its continued support is essential for the well-being of all member states and their citizens.

(The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the US and the OAS. The views expressed are entirely his own. Responses and previous commentaries: www.sirronaldsanders.com)

 

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