Whither the dividers of the OAS?


Whither the dividers of the OAS?


Sunday, March 29, 2020

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On March 20, 2020 a reckless and irresponsible General Assembly was held by the Organization of American States (OAS) putting the health of many at risk and giving an entirely wrong example to the entire world. The meeting of at least 50 people was held amid intense concerns about the quickly spreading coronavirus (COVID-19), and despite the strongest possible recommendations by US and international health authorities not to hold gatherings larger than 10 individuals.

This dangerous act was done to hold the election for a secretary general of the organisation and to gain an advantage for the incumbent, Luis Almagro, who was the declared candidate of the US, Brazil and Colombia. Almagro's current term does not end until May 28; therefore the meeting could easily have been postponed for at least a month, allowing time for greater control of COVID-19.

Despite logic and good sense, many member states of the OAS were coerced into holding what was, at best, a wrongful meeting. At worst, the meeting was illegal.

The meeting proceeded based on the advice of the legal secretary of the OAS. He is an employee of the Secretariat and is answerable to the secretary general. He may be the most independent-minded and fair person in the world, but because all his opinions have synchronised with the positions of the secretary general and powerful states within the organisation, healthy scepticism of his advice is understandable.

Remarkably, the Permanent Council of the OAS — the supposedly highest, day-to-day decision-making organ of the institution — has no legal counsel of its own, and no machinery for seeking external and independent legal guidance. Therefore, the opinion of the legal secretary prevails.

In the week running up to the General Assembly the US was in a state of heightened concern over the coronavirus. The official advice from the mayor of the District of Colombia, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the president of the US himself was to hold no gatherings larger than ten people.

Three days before the meeting, 13 Caribbean Community (Caricom countries) sent a joint letter to all member states of the OAS and to the secretary general pointing out the dangers of the meeting, and the powerful advice from all pertinent health authorities, to postpone it. Haiti was the only Caricom country that did not sign the official letter.

While the CDC was asked to examine the OAS building at which the meeting was held, there were no other pertinent checks. No one entering the room was checked for their travel history, or for the travel history of people with whom they had been in contact. Anyone could have been COVID-19-positive, but simply displaying no symptoms. The virus is known to take up to 14 days to incubate. The dangerous consequences of that meeting may yet unfold.

Up to the day prior to the event, meetings of representatives of the regional groups of the organisation were held electronically to consider the letter from the 13 Caribbean countries, which had the private backing of many other states — although some of them were silent publicly for whatever reason.

On March 19, the legal secretary gave the opinion that the General Assembly could only be postponed by the Permanent Council since the decision to hold the General Assembly on March 20 was taken by the Permanent Council, and only the Permanent Council could change its own rules. When asked whether the Permanent Council could hold an electronic meeting to consider postponement the legal secretary gave the further opinion, ex cathedra, that the rules of the council did not permit electronic meetings. It seemed not to occur to him that the rules were written prior to the technological age in which circumstance such as COVID-19 did not exist. He also casually dismissed the notion that where rules are silent on a course of action, simple common sense should prevail. In all the opinions he gave, the legal secretary was backed up by the representatives of the countries determined to hold the General Assembly on March 20.

What is important to note here is that a precedent has now been set. No meetings of the Permanent Council can be held electronically since the rules do not provide for it. The organisation may yet be hoisted by this petard in the weeks ahead.

Of further note is that the General Assembly was held under new rules of procedure that were not approved by the assembly itself, although only the General Assembly could change its own rules. None of the states that insisted on holding it, neither the legal secretary, has explained on what authority the rules were changed.

All of this is a sad indication of what the OAS has become. It is an organisation run by a few for a few.

In any event, Luis Almagro was elected for a second term with 23 votes. Ten countries voted for Maria Fernanda Espinosa, the remaining contender, since the Peruvian candidate Luis de Zela had withdrawn, and Dominica was the sensible absentee.

Over the last few years the OAS has experienced a bitter period of division among its member states that has left the organisation weakened and lacking in a coherent vision of its way forward in the collective interest of the people of the Americas that it was created to serve. If these divisions are not bridged, and these wounds are not healed, the organisation will continue to exist only as a cauldron for disagreement and discord. This would be catastrophic for the OAS as an institution. It would also be calamitous for Almagro's record.

Majority is not consensus. To operate only based on satisfying a majority, however achieved, neglects the interests of many others. The OAS will not survive in constant contention, vexation and division.

Almagro's second term provides him a great opportunity to leave a legacy of which he could be proud and which all member states could honour. It will require him to be attentive to the needs and aspirations of each group within the OAS, and to forge a common and vibrant agenda on which there is genuine consensus.

The member states themselves also must be committed to that goal and act on it, or the organisation will wither into a few states using it as a bullhorn for their own positions disdained by others tired of being subjugated.

Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda’s ambassador to the US, Organization of American States, and high commissioner to Canada; an international affairs consultant; as well as senior fellow at Massey College, University of Toronto, and the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He previously served as ambassador to the European Union and the World Trade Organization and as high commissioner to the UK. The views expressed are his own. For responses and to view previous commentaries: www.sirronaldsanders.com.

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