By Sir Ronald Sanders
CARICOM states led the way in the Organization of American States (OAS) on 21 April 2022 in a historic vote to suspend the status of the Russian Federation as a Permanent Observer to the Organization.
Eleven other CARICOM countries supported Antigua and Barbuda and Guatemala to help achieve an affirmative vote from 25 states of the 34 member states. No country voted against the resolution.
There were no winners or losers among the members and permanent observers of the OAS.
The winners are respected for the international legal order, the authority of international law and the fundamental principles of both the UN and the OAS. The Organization demonstrated that it cherishes international law, peace and freedom, and completely rejects aggression and war as legitimate means of settling disputes.
By the vote, suspending Russia as a Permanent Observer, the OAS member states recorded, beyond doubt, that they will not tolerate the violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states, and that no state, however, powerful should believe that it should attempt such adventurism and expect not to be roundly condemned.
There is an important lesson to be learned from the votes of the 12 small CARICOM states and five of their counterparts from Central America. They showed that small states, too, have a legitimate and strong voice in the hemisphere, and the world, to speak out for rights and for justice.
They did so in their own voice, speaking as an echo to no one. They led; they did not follow.
In opening the debate and vote on the resolution, on behalf of Antigua and Barbuda, I made it clear that we were proposing the suspension of the status of the Russian Federation as a permanent observer to our Organization of the American States, “with a heavy heart”. I explained that we would have preferred to maintain our relationship with the Russian Federation in the same way that we welcome the preservation of our relationship with other nations that we have permitted the status of permanent observer at the OAS.
However, as events have evolved by the Russian Federation’s aggression in Ukraine and the subsequent atrocities committed against civilians, including women and children, any choice we might have had in the matter had been removed.
The Charter of the OAS specifically requires strict adherence to four fundamental principles which are: international law is the standard of conduct of States in their reciprocal relations; international order consists essentially of respect for the personality, sovereignty, and independence of States, and the faithful fulfilment of obligations derived from treaties and other sources of international law; recognition that every State has the right to choose, without external interference, its political, economic, and social system and to organize itself in the way best suited to it, and has the duty to abstain from intervening in the affairs of another State; and condemnation of wars of aggression. Adherence to these principles is required not only by the OAS member states, but also by the States that have been granted the status of permanent observer.
The Russian Federation, like every other permanent observer, was granted that status in accordance with procedures which were set out by the Permanent Council on 27 June 1984. That Resolution specifically says at paragraph 6: “That the Permanent Council may review the permanent observer status granted to a State when it considers that the circumstances that determined the acceptance of its request have significantly changed or no longer obtain”.
It is manifestly evident by its aggression against Ukraine, and the events that followed, that the Russian Federation has violated the terms under which its status as a Permanent Observer had been granted.
The integrity of the OAS – and its authority – particularly regarding its adherence to its own rules, required the member states to send a clear message not only to Russia but to any other powerful state that their contract cannot be broken with impunity.
Beyond these considerations, the aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine, and the violations of international law, required the OAS, as one of the world’s oldest multilateral institutions, to demonstrate its disapproval, particularly as silence would serve to embolden other governments that might harbour ambitions of territorial acquisition and military aggression against neighbouring states.
Twice since the Russian invasion of Ukraine started, the OAS formally exhorted Russia to cease hostilities in Ukraine and, instead, to engage in dialogue and diplomacy. Instead, Russia intensified military action, resulting in huge loss of life, massive destruction, and the dislocation and displacement of millions of people.
There is no doubt that small states deeply sympathize with the people of Ukraine whose country is being torn apart, its people either killed or displaced, its future bleak and unpredictable. Small states also greatly admire the people of Ukraine for their courage, even as they weep over the destruction of their country. For, there but for fortune, go small nations.
That is why small nations of CARICOM and Central America could not remain silent or ignore the Russian aggression, and it is why they must raise their voices, now and in the future, against such aggression from wherever it comes.
A difference happened at the OAS on 21 April 2022. Small states led; raised their voices; and let it be known that they will use their collective soft power to defend and uphold the values and principles that contribute to the security and well-being of their own people. CARICOM solidarity was the core of that achievement, showing how much more its member states could attain by collective action.