Luis Almagro, Secretary General, Organization of American States
February 2, 2017
Latin America & The Liberal World Order
Democracy and Human Rights are under strain in some parts of the hemisphere – but the OAS has unique instruments and tools to ensure their eventual triumph over inequality, social exclusion, corruption, the erosion of political rights, and the closure of civic space.
I want to thank Christopher Sabatini of Global Americans and our hosts here at the National Endowment for Democracy for the opportunity to address you this morning.
The Latin America we recognize today is radically different from only a few decades ago, when authoritarian or military regimes were the norm.
Today, democracy is the most common form of government in the Americas.
We have built a Hemisphere on a foundation of the shared values we believe in – a vision of inclusiveness, democracy, universal freedoms and human rights.
These principles – the very core of the OAS – are clearly articulated in our founding documents – the OAS Charter, the American Charter of Human Rights, the Inter-American Conventions, and the Inter-American Democratic Charter.
The promise and opportunity of the Hemisphere lie in these shared values of more democracy, rights, security and prosperity for all. This is why I’ve made the theme of “More Rights for More People” the centerpiece of my administration.
The OAS is a forum created by and for Member States to come together in meaningful dialogue to achieve the fulfillment of this shared vision for the Americas.
We are meeting today, in Washington, DC, the capital of the United States and where the headquarters of the OAS calls home. In 1889, at the invitation of the Government of the United States we began the process we recognize as the Inter-American system, a process that continues uninterrupted, to this day.
That first international Conference of American States was held to discuss and recommend “for adoption to their respective Governments some plan of arbitration for the settlement of disagreements and disputes that may hereafter arise between them, and for considering questions relating to the intercourse and means of direct communication between said countries.”
Eighteen American States took part in the first conference, and since the forum has grown to include all 35 States in the Americas, looking at issues from inter-state relations, to commercial issues, to border disputes, to collective security. Today, these are organized under the four pillars of the OAS; democracy, human rights, integral development and multidimensional security.
The purpose of this institution is to guide and facilitate the relationship between countries in our hemisphere. We are as strong as our strongest member and as weak as our weakest link.
The United States played an integral role by bringing us all together. This is the only regional institution that includes all 35 states in the Americas. Each Member State plays an essential role in making these relationships work and just as inter-state relations have their strengths and weaknesses, so does this institution.
This Hemisphere remains one of the most unequal in the world, and its citizens are tired of the exclusion, weary of racism, persecution, and sterile conflicts that drag-on needlessly.
Over the years we have collectively identified and negotiated these values, creating agreements that guide this institution and our interactions with one another. Each Member States chose to negotiate and sign onto these principles defining who we are, what we believe, and how we interact with one another.
As Member States and as citizens, we have a responsibility to ensure that these rights are protected. Our members states are each unique; be it size, population, demographics, wealth or influence. For some, an individual state’s actions can affect the entire continent.
We built this institution to help close these divides and find common interests where we can work together. Multilateral institutions make collective effort feasible.
Collective action offers legitimacy where the efforts of an individual country may come up short. In turn, governments are more likely to participate if there is an institutional framework or collective interest, over an individual ask.
Individual Member States determine how well this institution works.
If Member States want a strong OAS, and a strong relationship between American States they will create one. If they want to isolate themselves, and focus on unilateral interests, no longer cooperating with one another, they will do so.
We are at an interesting moment in modern history. There appears to be a growing appetite for populist politics in some of the most developed economies around the world.
We must resist a shift towards isolationism, where communities retreat into what and who they know, and instead renew our commitments to pluralism, openness and inclusivity.
This also holds true about the state of democracy. Across the hemisphere, countries use a diverse set of democratic systems, at different stages of political maturity and consolidation.
Democracy is a process, not an end. There is no single solution that will work for everyone.
Today’s democracies are stronger, offering better social protection with more integrated economies. However, we cannot take this for granted. Citizens have a responsibility as much as a right. It is more than an election, it is what comes after.
Democracy is freedom of expression, association, and assembly. It is a transparent and accountable government that serves the people. It is an empowered citizen – strong civil society – a vocal, engaged opposition – a vibrant, independent media – an independent judiciary – and a security apparatus that is trusted by and accountable to the people.
Most importantly, it requires a tolerance of dissent.
We cannot become complacent because there are real and present risks in many countries across the region. With growing demands from citizens throughout the Hemisphere, the principal threats and challenges are a result of weak government institutions and poor social services.
Weak rule of law and growing insecurity, inequality and social exclusion; political polarization, corruption, the erosion of political and human rights, weak political parties, and the closure of civic space all undermine democratic consolidation.
Corruption has proven to be a central challenge to the success of the region’s growth and stability because it not only affects citizens economically but undermine the public’s trust in the governments elected to serve them.
Across the Americas, political corruption has mobilized citizens to take to the streets to demand transparency and accountability, and end impunity. Political campaigns have been fought, and won over it.
In Honduras, the bold and ambitious Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras, the MACCIH, was established to respond to the people protests and indignation over government corruption.
We must continue fight every day against corruption to address the enormous inequalities our citizens face and ensure more rights.
Fundamental freedoms, human rights, and democracy do not only exist when it is convenient. They must exist always. You have to care as much as about your opponent’s rights to express their views, as you do about your own.
This is why one of the most important roles that the OAS plays in the Hemisphere is its facilitation of dialogue for the prevention, management and resolution of crisis and conflict. This is why we can also offer a voice to those who have been excluded the democratic processes in their own countries.
Dialogue is not simply about words. In order for dialogue to be effective, it must also be accompanied by action, with results that come in a reasonable time frame.
A lack of dialogue is the first sign of failure in a political system because dialogue cannot exist when voices are not heard, or when voices have been silenced.
In Venezuela, we are witness to a process of dialogue that did not serve to help strengthen democracy in the short-term.
This past fall, the opposition in Venezuela had galvanized the citizenry behind a constitutional solution to the political crisis through the recall referendum. This constitutional solution was not achieved.
The International Community had used the Inter-American Democratic Charter and the democratic clause in MERCOSUR to help pressure the regime in Caracas regime to find a democratic solution.
With this momentum, the Opposition agreed to a new phase of the dialogue, and this phase dialogue has moved backwards- the National Assembly lost even more power through decisions of the Supreme Court; the total amount of political prisoners has grown; Inflation continues to grow to unprecedented levels, while the GDP is in freefall; and the last opportunity for a constitutional solution – the recall referendum has passed.
The insincere dialogue process has failed instead only serving to perpetuate the conditions.
The ethical and moral values that we define in the Inter-American Democratic Charter, the OAS Charter or the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights, mean nothing, if we do not make them a daily reality for the people of the Americas.
When there are violations, we have an obligation to address them. Words are not enough; we must be prepared to act- Especially when it is difficult to do so.
Jose Antonio Marina says that the reason our societies fail is because we develop unjust societies. When we lose these values, we all lose; society loses. This is why I took the job of Secretary General. It is my responsibility to champion and protect these values at the core of this institution, and at the very heart of the Americas.
We can achieve more rights for more people and I take this responsibility to heart.
The OAS, this community of states, is vital to ensuring the fullest possible observance of human rights in the Hemisphere, and an essential instrument for safeguarding democracy.
We have created an institution with the mechanisms and tools to champion and defend these rights and values. Now Member States must choose to enforce them.