Letter to the Chair of the Permanent Council, Regional Coordinators, Secretary-General, Assistant Secretary-General, OAS, and all OAS member states.
We, the undersigned representatives of 13 member states of the Organization of American States (OAS) are desirous of holding a General Assembly of the OAS for the purpose of conducting elections for the posts of Secretary-General and Assistant Secretary-General of the Organisation in accordance with Resolution CP/RES. 1139 (2247) 19 of the Permanent Council of 27 September 2019, prior to the eruption of COVID-19.
However, we are deeply conscious that COVID-19 (coronavirus) is now a pandemic of major concern to every country in the world, including the United States of America (U.S.) where the OAS headquarters is located in Washington, DC.
Further, we recognise that competent authorities in the U.S. and in Washington, DC have issued specific recommendations and Orders against gatherings of more than 50 persons; indeed the President of the U.S. has recommended no more than 10 persons at gatherings. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has specifically recommended that organizers “cancel or postpone in-person events that consist of 50 people or more throughout the United States.”
In the case of the Mayor of Washington, DC, an Order has been made prohibiting gatherings of over 50 persons because “it is essential that the spread of COVID-19 be slowed to protect the ability of public and private health care providers to handle the influx of new patients and to safeguard public health, safety, and welfare of the persons living or otherwise present in the District of Columbia”.
The Mayor’s Order also stipulates that: “Any business or institution that in knowing violation of this emergency Order shall be subject to all civil, criminal and administrative penalties authorized by law, including sanctions or penalties for violating D.C. Official Code 7-2307, and D.C. Official Code 47-2844(a) including summary suspension of licensure”.
Additionally, the Mayor’s Office has advised by communication of 17th March 2020, that: “OAS does not have the diplomatic immunity enjoyed by embassies; and, OAS is not located on federal property. As such, OAS is subject to DC’s jurisdiction. Mayor’s Order 2020-048 prohibits a mass gathering of more than 50 persons (subject to certain exceptions).
The proposed event that would gather 100 people in one room would violate Mayor’s Order 2020-048. No exception in Mayor’s Order 2020-048 appears to apply to the proposed meeting on Friday, March 20. The proposed meeting could reasonably result in further spread of COVID-19 in the DC region and reasonably contribute to the spread of COVID-19 as participants from foreign countries travel. The proposed event would violate Mayor’s Order 2020-048”.  It would not be in keeping with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations for the OAS to flout an Order issued by the Mayor of the District in which it is hosted, particularly as there are penalties.
We are fortified in our concerns by the following statement from the World Health Organization (WHO): “WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction”. The OAS cannot contribute to such inaction, and the Organization would send a terrible signal of irresponsibility to the world should it proceed to hold the General Assembly on Friday, 20th March 2020.
We draw attention to advice provided by the Director of the Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO) that: “In the United States of America, gathering of 10 people or more are discouraged.” And, further, that “the decision to proceed with the event should be informed by the following: COVID-19-related guidance and legislation in place in the location where the event is scheduled to take place; Status of COVID-19 transmission in the locations where the event is due to take place; Travel history of the prospective participants during the 14 days prior to the event; Age of the prospective participants, considering the impact of COVID-19 in older individuals over 60 years of age”.
More specifically PAHO states: “Considering the rapidly evolving epidemiological situation, as well as the fact that social distancing measures adopted are rapidly becoming more stringent in a collegial effort to slow down the spread of COVID-19, cancellation of the event is highly recommended”.
We are also mindful that the OAS Staff Committee, by letter of March 13th, 2020 to the Chief of Staff of the Secretary-General, has stated: “We therefore suggest that the GS/OAS Buildings be closed for at least two weeks consistent with policies that have been announced for the DMV area”.
Against this background, we are deeply concerned about the risks to the health of persons who would be summoned to a General Assembly Meeting on Friday, March 20th 2020. No one would have any way of knowing how many of such persons are infected by COVID-19 even if they show no obvious symptoms of it. We are also very aware that if any person contracts COVID-19 in the course of the General Assembly, it would set-off a chain of potential infections that could be fatal or would severely strain the medical facilities in Washington, DC and elsewhere in the US.
In these extraordinary circumstances of this severe global public health emergency, now officially classified as a pandemic by the WHO, we have determined that ‘this is a clear case of force majeure’, and, therefore, we are proposing that the General Assembly to be held on Friday, 20th March, 2020 be postponed especially as there is no urgency to do so. The terms of office of the incumbent Secretary-General and Assistant Secretary-General subsist until May 26th and July 17th respectively.
There is a real risk, that considering the seriousness of this situation, member states may be forced not to attend the General Assembly on March 20th, 2020, with one of two troubling results for the OAS, either (i) that there may not be a quorum and the meeting will have to be abandoned; or (ii) the meeting would be regarded as lacking legitimacy with damaging and far-reaching consequences for the effectiveness of the Organization and its capacity to continue as a representative body of the nations of our Hemisphere.
In all this, we are conscious that the rules of procedure of the Permanent Council require that a decision can only be changed by a vote of two-thirds of the members of the OAS, and that to hold a Permanent Council meeting to carry out such a vote, postponing the General Assembly to a later date poses the same grave public health hazards, even if estimated to be on a lesser scale.
Therefore, we implore all member states to acknowledge that these extraordinary circumstances demand extraordinary action to determine a vote to postpone the General Assembly. One possibility could be a Round Robin conducted by telephone of each member state by the Chair of the Permanent Council, Regional Coordinators, and the Assistant Secretary General and Permanent Council staff.
We give the undertaking that as soon as the competent authorities in the U.S., including in Washington, DC, permit gatherings that would allow a Permanent Council meeting to occur, we would support a Resolution to hold the General Assembly at an appropriate date immediately thereafter.
Noel Lynch, Chair of the CARICOM Caucus and Ambassador of Barbados
On behalf of:
The Ambassadors of Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Guyana, Grenada, Jamaica, St Kitts-Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago.