On March 18, member countries of the Organization of American States will elect a new secretary-general who will face the daunting challenge of turning around the 66-year-old institution. This election is critical because the OAS is at the proverbial end of the line.
The OAS must undergo radical reforms if it is to again become a hemispheric reference point. Except for its excellent human-rights commission and election observers, the OAS has increasingly become irrelevant. Former Guatemalan Vice President Eduardo Stein, until recently a candidate for the top job at the OAS, openly questioned “whether reform of the Organization is still really possible and feasible.”
Today, the real business of hemispheric relations happens either bilaterally or through a complex patchwork of sub-regional organizations, such as SICA and CARICOM and new political groupings such as CELAC and UNASUR, to name a few. Yet, the latter regional, anti-U.S. alliances are losing political steam.
Given the U.S.’ resurgent regional interest — and especially our strategic rapprochement with Cuba — the OAS could provide the United States with a unique forum for region-wide multilateral engagement.
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To achieve this, the United States must resume its leadership within the organization and work with the new secretary-general (the political leader) and assistant secretary-general (the day-to-day manager) on a process of deep reforms.
The death of the OAS would be tragic. It provides the political architecture necessary for the hemisphere to confront crucial issues, including the protection of human rights and women’s rights, the strengthening of democratic institutions, the fight against transnational crime and the provision of the political framework to promote development (and consequently poverty alleviation). It wrote the first-ever charter of human rights — signed seven months before that of the United Nations.
Just as the organization built itself to address the challenges of the 20th century, it must now restructure and reinvent itself to manage 21st century challenges. The OAS has traditionally operated by consensus. The last two decades, however, have seen profound changes in hemispheric politics that have stymied its ability to function.
So what is to be done?
The contemporary political divergence that has emerged in the hemisphere necessitates that the OAS should consider a bifurcated, restructured model along the lines of the United Nations — it must have a security council that complements the work of the permanent council. Membership of this security council could be based either on regionally representative rotations and/or on economic and population sizes. Or it can move toward majority or super-majority decision-making. If the OAS continues to hold on to the notion of consensus it will wither on the vine.
U.S. taxpayers pay for 60 percent of the OAS budget — that is $48.5 million of a total budget of $81.5 million. Brazil pays for 10 percent; Canada for 12 percent; Colombia, Argentina, Venezuela and Chile make up another 7 percent; Mexico is over 8 percent, and the rest of the non-North American nations finance the remaining 13 percent.
Unless there is a profound change in the status quo, there will be heavy pressure on any new U.S. administration to pare the organization to a bare minimum.
There are three priorities:
▪ First, eliminate unfunded mandates. Currently, the OAS is tasked by its member states with fulfilling 757 mandates, the vast majority of which lack a budget. Going forward, the organization must require that all mandates be linked to a funding source.
▪ Second, the new secretary-general must establish priorities. These should include providing and promoting 1. democratic safeguards and elections monitoring; 2. human rights, women’s rights and gender equality; 3. a laser-like focus on education, scholarships and social inclusion; 4. the legal framework for fighting transnational crime.
▪ Third, the OAS must show that it is improving the human condition of the citizens of the Americas. It must establish metrics to gauge success or failure.
If reformed, the OAS can again become the hemisphere’s signature organization for strengthening security and democracy. Now is our last, best chance.
Peter Schechter is director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council.