Reform the OAS or oversee its irrelevance 

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Sir Ronald Sanders is Ambassador of Antigua and Barbuda to the United States and the Organisation of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and at Massey College in the University of Toronto.

By Sir Ronald Sanders

Our world exists today in troubled circumstances, governed by outmoded charters and laws that are no longer fit for purpose and do not respond to human needs.

When most of these Charters were signed seventy or more years ago, more than 70 countries were not independent and had no say in their formulation. Therefore, the conditions of underdevelopment, poverty and disease that today plague nations around the globe were not considered; if anything, they were regarded as the natural condition of colonized people that would be addressed by their predictable death. Life was cheap.

The charter of the Organization of American States (OAS) is one such governing document. It was signed in 1948 but brought into force on December 13, 1951 – seventy years ago. The leaders, of the 14 countries that signed the Charter, were mostly autocrats who were more concerned with avoiding being overthrown by military coup d’état’s than they were about the will of their own people. They were especially concerned that, notwithstanding any actions they took to repress dissent among their own people, no other country should have any right to criticize.

Only one present-day CARICOM country – Haiti – was a Member of the Organization at that time.

The leaders were also concerned with settling disputes between themselves peacefully and in acting collectively against external aggression against any of them. Not all of them succeeded in pursuing peaceful dispute settlements with neighbours. Military skirmishes, saber rattling, and other acts of aggression continued.

Significantly, while the 70th anniversary, on December 13, 2021, of the Charter coming into force should have been an occasion for celebration, the date came and went with no commemoration by the OAS.

The Charter has been amended only four times in the last 70 years, and then only in response to urgent political crises. Yet, it cries out for reform.

The CARICOM member countries of the OAS place great value on the major cornerstones of the Charter, particularly: the effective exercise of representative democracy, non-aggression, the pacific settlements of disputes, the multi dimensionality of security, the recognition that economic cooperation is essential to the common welfare and prosperity of our peoples, and the proclamation of the fundamental rights of the individual without distinction as to race, nationality, creed or sex.

However, knowing that many of these principles, particularly as they refer to development, are recognized more by omission than commission, CARICOM countries have, at various times, urged that the Charter be rejuvenated, making it relevant to the present challenges that confront the Americas.

It is not sufficient for the Charter to recognize the indispensability of economic cooperation without commitment to ensuring economic development. It is not enough for the Charter to proclaim fundamental rights of the individual without distinction as to race; and yet be silent on positive action to end racism which still lurks in the shadows of some governance systems and, sometimes, displays itself even in the bright daylight of their flawed justice machinery. Nowhere in the Charter is it inscribed that Member States should implement machinery to eradicate the scourge of racism from the Americas.

Is it adequate that the Charter declares, as a principle, that education of peoples should be directed toward justice, freedom and peace without acknowledging that justice, freedom and peace will not be served while inequities of access to education continue to exist across the hemisphere?

In today’s interconnected world where borders are no barriers to disease and no walls against Climate Change, is it right that the Charter should declare that “Development is the primary responsibility of each country”, when today small states are ravaged by the effects of CO2 emissions from other countries that retard and erode their development with impunity?

Is it right that, against the reality of the loss and damage that are inflicted by Climate Change and Global warming, that all the Charter says is that “member states should refrain from practicing policies and adopting actions or measures that have serious adverse effects on the development of other member states”, and yet not provide for adequate compensation or measures that would cause offending countries to cease and desist?

When the Charter entered into force, it suited the requirements of the leaders of the fourteen countries that directed its authorship. But 1951 conditions and preoccupations of fourteen leaders should not continue to prevail in 2021 circumstances for 33 countries. I say 33 because Cuba and Venezuela that were among the original signatories have withdrawn from the Organization, although there is a fiction that Cuba is still a member, and that Venezuela is represented by a nominee of an “Interim” president who is recognized by fewer than 50 countries globally (and then only barely).

If the members of the OAS want the Organization to be relevant to the lives of their people, to their economic advancement, and to their social improvement, they have to make its framework fit for purpose.

Governments should consider the establishment of a Group of Wise Persons, reflective of the regional membership, to analyze the Charter and to make recommendations on how it should be reformed. The alternative is to limp along – mostly to be paralyzed – in the illusion that yesterday’s Charter is still fit for purpose in our hemisphere of today.

There is a Biblical proscription against pouring new wine into old wine skins, for surely, the old wine skins will burst, and the new wine will spill, wasting the years and effort that were devoted to its production.

By seeking to retain a 70-year-old document, written at a very different time by representatives of only 14 countries, and to apply its outmoded approaches to 33 countries in modern-day realities, the OAS members are pursuing an effort that can no longer be sustained.

After 70 years, the governments of the OAS member states should recognize that it is time for a comprehensive study to recommend its reform, renewal, and relevance.

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