Uruguay, Peru and Guatemala have nominated candidates to replace Jose Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the 34-country Organization of American States. In the first of a three-part occasional series leading up to January’s vote, columnist Andres Oppenheimer interviews the candidates. Today, he asked Foreign Minister Luis Almagro of Uruguay five questions about his plans for the OAS and attacks from critics. Excerpts:
Which specific changes would you make at the OAS if elected Secretary General?
The OAS must regain credibility and relevance, and become a political convergence mechanism that complements and articulates other (regional) integration processes. In that context, it's key that the strengthening of democracy and its institutions goes hand-in-hand with an unrestricted defense of human rights and inter-American (human rights) mechanisms, and that their independence be respected by all....
At the same time, it would have to address issues of this century, such as the lack of security among citizens and the sustainability of development plans that are threatened by climate change and natural disasters.
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Upon this premise and in line with the reforms led by Mexico and approved by the OAS, I will promote an internal re-engineering process so that, with the support of member states, a results-based budget be established, with periodical accountability on the progress made in areas that are key to that strategic vision.
Panamá has invited Cuba to the Summit of the Americas to be held in that country in 2015. The United States opposes Cuba's participation, saying that under Summit of the Americas and OAS rules, only democratic countries can participate in these summits. Venezuela and its allies, on the other hand, say that if Cuba is not invited, they will not attend. Who is right?
I believe the situation assumes a dichotomy that doesn’t exist. The Latin American countries without exception formulated in the last Summit held in Cartagena that Cuba should be part of the 2015 Summit. Panamá has welcomed this desire and I believe that the invitation sent to Cuba is good news for the inter-American family.
Considering that many of us regard the OAS Human Rights Commission and the OAS Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression as the OAS’ most valuable agencies, what is your opinion of the efforts of Ecuador, Venezuela and their allies to make changes in both of those agencies?
We were emphatic in the Extraordinary General Assembly in March 2013 in valuing further strengthening the inter-American human rights system, as well as a positive dialogue between member nations and the Human Rights Commission, without double standards.
The autonomy and independence of the Human Rights Commission and the Inter-American Human Rights Court are unalterable principles. As government leaders we must defend the victims’ perspective of human rights violations and become leaders in the outrage over this issue. This does not contradict national and popular sovereignty.
Your political opponents say that you, in your efforts to win the votes of Venezuela and its allies, have looked the other way from the 43 dead and hundreds of wounded during the student protests in Venezuela early this year. What is your response?
I was part of the UNASUR [Union of South American Nations] delegation of Foreign Ministers that visited Venezuela to find paths to dialogue and peace. My action in that respect has been consistent. At the OAS, I pushed a statement approved by the majority of member nations that called for limiting the tension and polarization. I simultaneously insisted on the need to respect and defend freedom of expression and the right to protest peacefully.
When we moved to seek paths to dialogue and peace, we talked to all the parties, taking into account the need to include all the players that, moved by democratic intentions, seek to oppose a legitimately elected government. I have been a valid interlocutor of all sectors and on the issues of human rights and democracy, I consider my principles more unflagging than ever.
Your political opponents also say that you, again in your efforts to win the votes of Venezuela and its allies, abstained from supporting a United Nations declaration condemning the annexation of Crimea, and that you recently denounced Israel for the conflict with Gaza. They also say that you had your photo taken wearing the Palestinian scarf while failing to denounce Hamas for shooting missiles from schools and hospitals. Your response?
I would say that it is not an accurate analysis, and that it misses the context and the principles upon which Uruguay’s foreign policy has been based in recent years. First of all, there is a temporary inconsistency: When the Crimea vote was taken, the government of Uruguay had not yet announced (it did so three months later) the launching of my candidacy to the OAS. Likewise, in its explanation of the vote, it ratified its support to territorial integrity and inviolability of nations.
Regarding Israel and Palestine, Uruguay began by condemning, in the most vigorous manner, the murder of the three Israeli youths. Later we deplored the use of violence regardless of which party was using it. And, consistent with our principles, we condemned, in the strongest terms, the lack of proportionality in the Israeli response, especially the death of children and civilians, something we will never stop deploring if we have any respect at all of human rights.
My meeting with the Palestinian community in Uruguay must be seen under the same logic as my meeting with the Jewish organizations in Uruguay. And I don’t see why they should be read differently from the time when I wore the yarmulke and prayed at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Please note that we have always supported Israel when we understand that they are right.