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To OAS or not to OAS: that is the question

Ronald Sanders

Sunday, February 28, 2010    

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At a meeting of leaders of Latin America and the Caribbean on February 23, Caribbean Community (Caricom) governments supported a joint "Declaration on (the) Falklands Islands Issue".

The Declaration "confirmed their support of Argentina's legitimate rights in the sovereignty dispute with the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands Issue", and recalled "regional interest in having the governments of Argentina and the United Kingdom resume negotiations to find a fair, peaceful and definitive solution to the dispute over the sovereignty" of the Falklands/Malvinas islands. They went further to call on the European Union (EU) countries to amend their charter to remove the Falkland Islands from the list of overseas territories associated with the EU.

The support of Latin American countries for Argentina in this matter is quite understandable. They have links of language, culture, history and proximity that go back centuries.

But the support of Caricom countries for Argentina's "legitimate rights" is puzzling. Both the UK and Argentina have claimed the Falklands/Malvinas for almost 200 years. So what now makes Argentina's rights more "legitimate" than Britain's? And why call for "negotiations" between Argentina and Britain to find "a fair, peaceful and definitive solution" to the dispute if it has already been decided that Argentina's rights are "legitimate"?

Unless there is something they have not made public, this position by Caribbean governments appears on the surface to run counter to their own national interests.

The Caribbean has always strongly supported a people's right to self-determination. It is in fulfilment of their own right to self-determination that Caribbean Community (Caricom) countries are independent states. In this regard, since the people of the Falklands/Malvinas have consistently and overwhelmingly chosen to be British, Caribbean governments would certainly not argue that the manifest wish of the people of the Falklands/Malvinas should be ignored, particularly since Britain has exercised de facto sovereignty over the islands continuously since 1833.

The national interests of 12 of the 14 independent Caricom countries are much more bound up with Britain than they are with Argentina. Caricom's trade with Britain far exceeds trade with Argentina; investment in Caricom countries from Britain is much greater than any investment from Argentina; official development assistance from Britain to Caricom countries directly and indirectly (through the European Union and the Commonwealth for instance) is much larger than any assistance from Argentina; the number of tourists from Britain to Caricom countries is considerably greater than from Argentina; and far more Caricom nationals live, work and study in Britain than in Argentina.

What appears to have triggered this discussion at the 33-nation Cancun meeting is the fact that a British oil exploration company, Desire Petroleum Plc, announced that it had started drilling for oil 60 miles (100 kilometres) north of the Falklands/Malvinas. Argentina objects to this development.

In giving support to Argentina, Caricom countries run the risk of compromising their own interest. For instance, where would they stand if Venezuela objected to oil exploration off part of Guyana, despite long-standing international arbitrations and agreements confirming Guyana's title? Also, where would these countries stand if Venezuela objected to oil explorations that might be granted by some of them near Aves Island/Bird Rock to which Venezuela lays claim? In the case of Belize where Guatemala claims the entire country, the same argument applies.

Then we come to the matter of the creation of a grouping of these 33 countries that excludes Canada and the United States. Some of the Latin American leaders - in particular those with a strong anti-American position - proclaimed to the media that this new grouping should replace the Organisation of American States (OAS).

Well, replacing the OAS is simply in no country's interest - not even those with the most rabid anti-American governments. There has to be a forum in the Hemisphere where all its countries are represented and where discussions can take place at all levels of government and on all issues. And that organisation is clearly the already well-established OAS. In this regard, Cuba should return to the OAS and the exclusion of the present elected government of Honduras should cease.

In any event, I suspect that only a very few governments touted the idea of an "alternative" organisation to the OAS and even fewer would have supported it. Certainly for Caricom countries, there is no other organisation in which they can engage the US government on a regular and sustained basis at all levels. That alone makes the OAS worthwhile for them.

Further, Caricom governments greatly value their relations with Canada, which has been an ally and partner for generations in the Hemisphere and in the Commonwealth. They would want deeper, not distant relations with Canada.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with Latin American and Caribbean countries establishing a grouping that is not an alternative to the OAS, but is additional to it.

However, no one should believe that it will be anything more than an opportunity for dialogue at the leadership level. It will have no secretariat and therefore little means of implementing decisions; decisions will have to be made by consensus, therefore no binding decisions will be made. In truth, the grouping is so amorphous and is made up of countries at such different levels of development and with such differing interests and ambitions, that its meetings will largely be obligatory and its decisions only declaratory.

The Summit "Declaration of Cancun" does have as one of its objectives "the co-ordination of regional positions ahead of meetings and conferences of global reach... to project the region and increase its influence". This is to be welcomed provided that the view of smaller Caribbean islands are seriously considered and reflected by the larger Latin American states.

This brings us to the OAS itself. The US government should regard this move by Latin American and Caribbean countries to set up a Hemispheric grouping, which deliberately excludes it, as a firm warning that its neglect of Latin America and the Caribbean's development needs and issues, and its oftentimes casual dismissal of their positions is not in the interest of the United States. The authorities in Washington need to engage Latin American and Caribbean countries as genuine partners and neighbours, and a strengthened and revitalised OAS is the place to do so.

In this connection, Caricom countries should indicate their support for the re-election on March 23 of the incumbent Secretary General José Miguel Insulza. His task over the last five years in a fractious organisation, which also relies on consensus for decision-making, has not been easy. But he has tried to introduce reforms and he has been the most forceful secretary general the OAS has seen for a long time. Additionally, he has been very mindful of his obligations to his Caribbean member states.

He has also taken on Hugo Chavez over violations of media freedom in Venezuela and he has not been afraid to point out shortcomings by the US government. To have offended both these adversaries, he must have done something right for the rest.

Over the next five and final years as secretary general, Insulza can be bold in giving the OAS real direction in reforming its mandate and establishing it as a meaningful forum for settling hemispheric issues and advancing democracy, development and human rights.

Responses and previous commentaries at: www.sirronaldsanders.com

Sir Ronald Sanders is a consultant and former Caribbean diplomat.

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