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Colección: INTERAMER
Número: 66
Año: 1999
Autor: Christopher R. Thomas
Título: The Organization of American States in its 50th Year: Overview of a Regional Commitment


I. Principle, Fundamentalism, and Pragmatism

The early and gestative period of the Organization was followed by a deliberate and sustained period of consolidation from the early nineteen seventies to the mid-nineteen nineties. During that period, the raison d’être of the maturing regional body and its definition had to be established in more than philosophical terms. Principles had to be engaged, gains had to be effectively secured and advanced, and objectives translated into concrete achievements over the entire gamut of sectoral interests. The equilibrium of consolidation required that no single area be neglected or overlooked. Nonetheless, priorities had to be established. Critical to the dynamics of the period was a stable political environment. The consolidation of democracy, therefore, became the first priority of the Organization.

The Charter of the Organization, as stated earlier, explicitly prohibited any form of intervention by member states in the internal affairs of others. Notwithstanding this fundamental provision, many circumstances of constitutional interruptions continued to take place within the region involving at times serious and unconscionable violations of human rights. A number of these situations had also been attended by forms of intervention that stretched, strained, and confronted that principle of the Charter. The engagement of this dilemma was essential to the consolidation of democracy as a priority for economic and social development. The quintessence of this dilemma was perhaps best described by the Permanent Representative of Argentina, in the general debate of the regular session of the Assembly in Belem do Parà, in 1994, in relation to the coup d’etat in Haiti in 1991 and the subsequent turmoil in that country, when he posited the need for reconciliation of the sovereignty of the state with the sovereignty of the people.

The question of the “sacrosanctity” of the Charter principle of nonintervention compared with the paramountcy of the lives and human rights of the people, has been a perennial question of great unease within the Organization. Situations in many countries of the region including the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Haiti, Grenada, Nicaragua, and Panama, in addition to certain ideological considerations, have all—in different ways—raised perspectives for the engagement of this question over which the region has collectively agonized. The circumstances of the earlier era, however, did not provide the political space for an overall consideration of this question; responses and reactions accordingly differed. During the period of the seventies to the nineties, however, this question was debated in different forms and from different circumstantial perspectives. By the late 1980s it became evident that the engagement of this question could no longer be postponed by the membership. The ad hoc and not altogether satisfactory responses by the Organization to the resolution of earlier political crises underscored the need for a framework approach to the issue, in spite of its overall sensitivity. In June 1991 at the twenty-first regular session of the General Assembly, in Santiago de Chile, the question was posited in resolution 1080—commitment to democracy and renewal of the inter-American system. Resolution 1080 thus constitutes a hemispheric landmark in the consideration of this question.

Resolution 1080 addressed many questions and established, inter alia, three clear directions: A role and discretion for the Secretary General in taking the initiative in convening the Permanent Council in respect of interruptions of constitutional political order; the competence of the Permanent Council to consider the situation and convene, in its judgement, a meeting of Consultation of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs or a special session of the General Assembly within a timeframe of ten days; and the envisagement of the Organization taking courses of action albeit within the principle of nonintervention. Resolution 1080 also empowered the Permanent Council to devise proposals that would serve as incentives to preserve and strengthen democratic systems, based on international solidarity and cooperation, and to apprise the General Assembly thereof at its twenty-second regular session.

Notwithstanding the circumscription of perceived action inherent in Resolution 1080, many political analysts including critics of the Organization have interpreted the provisions of the Resolution as more than a perceptible development in the engagement by the Organization of its Charter principle of non-intervention in a new era of the political dynamics of the region. This is undoubtedly so, particularly when it is considered that the resolution was adopted by consensus. Its most important value, however, must be seen in the mindfulness and awareness it signaled to the region as a whole, and beyond: That the Organization of American States was prepared and determined to design a framework to address institutionally, if not conclusively, aberrant constitutional behavior of its members from the standpoint of a democratic political culture.

The mechanisms established in Resolution 1080 have been tested in three situations since 1991: Haiti, (1991); Peru, (1992); and Guatemala, (1993). They provided bases for the institutional involvement of the Organization in the search for peaceful solutions. In the cases of Peru and Guatemala, solutions were achieved without violence. The solutions might not have fully satisfied all parties, but did establish recommitments to the respect for the rule of law and constitutional order, albeit in an imperfect world, as fundamental to the integrity of continuing and future democratic governance.

The case of Haiti was somewhat more complex. Discussions with the military leaders, who had deposed the constitutionally elected President and usurped power, protracted for nearly three years. What the discussions and negotiations clearly revealed was the moral rather than persuasive consciousness that the mechanisms of Resolution 1080 had established in the absence of consensual follow-up action. A hemispheric discretionary embargo in respect of relations with Haiti remained, at most discretionary, and the Organization finally resorted to wider collaboration with the United Nations in a forcibly negotiated restoration of peace and constitutional order in the midst of widespread and wanton violation of human rights in that country, including criminal physical abuses and murder. The leadership role of CARICOM members in the Organization’s collaborative effort with the United Nations must be recorded in the history of the resolution of that problem. It was at CARICOM’s initiative and on CARICOM’s insistence that the question was introduced into the United Nations, after a series of regional efforts and negotiations at the sub-regional and regional level in which CARICOM assumed a foremost position.

The resolution of those three cases holds important lessons for the Hemisphere and the world. It signaled:
  • That a wider collective consciousness was taking root within the Hemisphere that could and would be mobilized in asserting the legitimacy of democratic principles;
  • That while the Organization maintains its adherence to its Charter principle of non-intervention, there are limits to the Organization’s tolerance in respect of the abuse of the rights of its citizenry; and
  • That in the absence of provisions of peace enforcement measures in its Charter, the Organization was prepared to use its status as a regional agency of the United Nations in collaboration with the world body in the ultimate securement of peace.
The momentum of the aforementioned lessons had been gestating for some time. This was expressed in 1992 when the Organization amended its Charter by the Protocol of Washington. The Protocol of Washington, in many respects, articulated further and enshrined the spirit and driving force of Resolution 1080. The Protocol of Washington, inter alia, empowers the Organization to undertake diplomatic initiatives with regimes that have illegally assumed political power and finally provides for the whole or partial suspension of such regimes from membership of the Organization, where such diplomatic initiatives fail to bring about a successful restoration of democracy. The competence to suspend can be exercised by a two-thirds majority of member states.

Analysts have argued that the Protocol of Washington did not go far enough in the provision of enforcement measures. The debate on this will never be conclusive where the management of sovereignty continues to be a fundamental element in the process of change. The Protocol of Washington may not be an ideal provision. It constitutes, however, a practical and pragmatic agreement in the engagement, within a changed environment of the potentially most divisive issue among the membership. From this perspective, the Protocol and its antecedent measures represented the composite of a profound development of the Organization itself, particularly in the provision for suspension by a two-thirds majority. Its thrust might be largely remedial. Yet, given the historically delicate and sensitive antecedent interactions through which it was finally realized, and the modern mood and consciousness from which it derived, neither its deterrent nor preventative value should be underestimated. Indeed, given the increasingly prevailing climate of democracy as a regional political culture, hindsight might yet show that the governments of the Hemisphere acted wisely in not advocating extreme measures in a new and progressively dissuasive environment. From this perspective the Protocol of Washington has served to enhance the maturity stature of the hemispheric body.