As the Organization of American States (OAS) prepares to elect its next secretary general, there is hardly any enthusiasm or excitement. Normally, the election of a secretary general creates a flurry of activity and anticipation, with intense negotiations and high-level visits. Today, however, the prevailing mood is one of indifference. The outcome of the election appears to be a foregone conclusion—and nobody seems to care. Indeed, Latin American officials recently gathered in Cancún, Mexico to discuss the creation of a new institution that would serve as an alternative to the OAS.
I am afraid we must confront a painful reality: The OAS is marching toward irrelevance. It was once the premier democratic forum in the Western Hemisphere, and it remains the only multilateral forum in which U.S., Canadaian and Latin American officials can engage in a constructive dialogue on important regional issues. But in recent years, the OAS has been weakened by a toxic combination of weak leadership and structural deficiencies.
The current secretary general, José Miguel Insulza, from Chile, who today will almost certainly be reelected to another five-year term, has greatly distorted the institution’s priorities. Among the several calls for him to resign, earlier this month, the New York-based Human Rights Foundation released a report documenting Insulza’s numerous deceptions and failures, including his role in fueling the Honduran political crisis, and called on him not to stand for reelection.
During his tenure as OAS leader, Insulza has ignored the sustained attacks on democracy in countries such as Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador. Last year, however, he launched a campaign to end the ban on Cuban membership in the OAS, and he demanded that Honduran officials reinstall an aspiring autocrat as their president.
Insulza’s performance in Honduras was truly shameful. Rather than work to defuse tensions prior to the ouster of President Manuel Zelaya, Insulza took actions that served to inflame them. On the eve of Zelaya’s removal, Insulza sent an OAS mission to “observe“the referendum that the Honduran president was organizing—even though Honduran judicial authorities had declared the referendum illegal. After Zelaya was arrested and sent to Costa Rica, Insulza refused to speak with the provisional Honduran officials.
To be sure, we can’t blame Insulza for all of the problems plaguing the OAS. Collective action by OAS member states has been hindered by the “consensus“rule, which essentially allows a minority to veto decisions made by the Permanent Council. Some governments have used this rule as leverage to pursue their own short-term economic interests.
The OAS is also plagued by a bloated and largely unaccountable bureaucracy. While this is a longstanding problem, Insulza has made it worse: on his watch, the number of OAS bureaucrats has increased by some 25 percent. As a result of his spendthrift ways, the OAS is facing a massive operating deficit. If the institution’s fiscal problem is not solved by the end of this year, which would demand a sharp increase of members’ contributions, it will be forced to fire an equally massive number of employees.
On the other hand, there are still significant parts of the OAS that are functioning effectively and doing important work. One example is the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which recently issued a comprehensive report on the obliteration of democracy in Venezuela. Senators Christopher Dodd and Richard Lugar, a Democrat and a Republican, responded to the report by saying, “Venezuela is a critical testing ground of OAS support for democracy and human rights, where basic civil liberties are under threat.”
Unfortunately, Insulza failed to defend the IACHR against virulent attacks by the Chávez regime, providing yet another example of why he is unfit to serve as secretary general.
Moving forward, how should the OAS be reformed? Here are four proposals:
(1) The Inter-American Democratic Charter should be converted into a formal treaty with teeth, and the Inter-American System of Human Rights (which in addition to the Commission comprises the Inter-American Court of Human Rights) should be given the authority to ensure compliance. This would prevent the consensus rule from hindering the defense of democracy in OAS member countries.
(2) The OAS bodies that are performing well—such as the IASHR, the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission, and the Inter-American Commission against Terrorism—should be strengthened.
(3) The OAS bureaucracy should be downsized, and its resources should be deployed more effectively. This is the only way to eliminate profligate spending and make the institution more sustainable over the long run.
(4) OAS members should elect a secretary general who has the political and diplomatic skills, as well as the international standing, to tackle key regional challenges and ensure that the organization stays relevant in the years to come.
Now more than ever—at a time when democracy is under siege in Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador; when drug violence is tearing apart Mexico and threatens Central America; when the region is still recovering from the global economic crisis—the Western Hemisphere needs a strong multilateral institution dedicated to upholding democratic values and promoting regional cooperation. If the OAS is unwilling to stand up for democracy in its member countries, it will cease to be relevant. I fear the organization is headed in that direction, but it’s not too late to change course.