The Organization of American States must evolve or die. That was the central message from a bloc of Latin American nations challenging the body’s role in the region.
As the annual OAS General Assembly concluded Tuesday in Cochabamba, Bolivia, the organization’s relevance took center stage in sometimes contentious debates.
The General Assembly was expected to consider measures that could strip the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and the Inter-American Human Rights Court of some of their independence. The reforms would also give states the power to delay, for up to a year, the commission’s influential country reports, greatly reducing their impact. But late Tuesday, members appeared poised to kick the recommendations back to the permanent council, which will have to provide concrete proposals by early next year.
Opposition to the commission came from Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, among others. The countries — all part of the ALBA bloc of mostly left-leaning nations — accuse the OAS of being under the sway of the United States and using the commission as a foreign policy bludgeon.
Ecuador President Rafael Correa — the only head of state to attend the meeting besides host Evo Morales, Bolivia’s president — kicked off the event Monday with a renewed call for an overhaul.
The commission has been in Correa’s crosshairs since it slammed his use of an obscure libel law to lodge multimillion lawsuits against several media outlets, including El Universo newspaper.
Correa said national laws must take precedence over commission decrees in the same way that the United States considers the death penalty and lobbying legal, even though they would be verboten in many countries.
“We cannot accept the double morals and the inconsistencies,” he said. “We need to focus on the priorities of our America — this neocolonialism is over.”
On Tuesday, in an interview with Venezuela’s Telesur, Correa went further.
“There’s no more time to lose,” he said. “If it’s necessary to abandon the OAS and create our own system, then we have to do it.”
By most accounts, the OAS isn’t disappearing anytime soon. By the end of Tuesday’s session, most of the delegates were talking about evolution rather than dissolution, and Guatemala was selected as the site for next year’s meeting.
Morales said the body still has a place in the region, but that it should be joined by the newly created Union of South American Nations, UNASUR, and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, or CELAC, which includes every nation in the hemisphere except the United States and Canada.
“We don’t want to eliminate the OAS,” he said at a news conference, “but we need to give these new initiatives more importance.”
The calls for reform have sparked alarm among media and civil liberty organizations. In an article published before the meeting, Human Rights Watch Director José Miguel Vivanco said the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission, and its Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, have helped decriminalize libel, defamation and contempt; led to reforms in the military; and helped eliminate discriminatory practices in the region.
“Well, if this organization has been so successful, why then has a campaign against it been launched?” Vivanco wrote. “Very simple: Because it has touched the interests of important governments that possess clear autocratic tendencies or are sufficiently powerful as to believe that they are entitled to not render accounts to a supervisory regional body.”
Besides the clear OAS opponents, the reform measure could also get the backing of regional heavy hitters. Brazil has been irked by the body’s stance against the Monte Belo damn project. Mexico, too, has echoed the need for reform.
The United States and Canada have been the staunchest defenders of the status quo.
On Monday, U.S. Permanent Representative to the OAS Carmen Lomellin said she trusted the assembly would guarantee the commission’s independence and focus on pressing needs in the region.
“In recent months, our discussions have sometimes seemed as if we are seeking to weaken the fabric that binds us together in the inter-American system, rather than focusing on how the countries of the Americas can work together to address the issues that most concern our citizens,” she said.
On Tuesday, U.S. Department of State deputy spokesman Mark Turner said the U.S. was not blindly opposed to change, but that reforms must be “achieved through consensus and … contribute to strengthening the institutions.”
But the U.S. refusal to ratify the American Convention on Human Rights Pact of San Jose, the 1969 agreement that established the bodies, has left it open to criticism.
On Tuesday, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro said the U.S. had to live up to its rhetoric.
“If they think these organizations are as important as they say they are, they should sign the Pact of San Jose today and give the Inter-American Court jurisdiction in the United States,” he said.
Maduro also reminded the assembly of the commission’s failure to denounce an attempted coup in 2002 against President Hugo Chávez.
In April, Chávez ordered his newly formed presidential advisory board to study withdrawing from the human rights body.
Also at the meeting, Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Nicaragua announced they are pulling out of a regional defense treaty, which considers an armed attack against one member as an attack against all.
Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño said the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance was originally created as a U.S. initiative and it’s no longer worth being a part of, The Associated Press reported.
The 42nd Assembly also approved The Social Charter of the Americas, which states the need for governments to adopt policies that “promote inclusion and to prevent, combat, and eliminate all forms of intolerance and discrimination, especially gender, ethnic, and race discrimination in order to safeguard equal rights and opportunities and strengthen democratic values.”
The body also backed Argentina’s claims to the Falkland Islands and discussed Bolivia’s demand for access to the Pacific.
Founded in 1948, the OAS includes every country in the hemisphere but Cuba, which was barred for almost 50 years but has refused to join since the ban was lifted in 2009.