The Organization of American States is in Crisis. This Matters Big Time

The Organization of American States is meeting this week for its annual General Assembly in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.  The regional organization, often overlooked in American policy circles, is facing serious problems due to severe budget shortfalls and deeply divided opinions on how to address the ongoing political and economic crisis facing Venezuela. The OAS is facing a crisis, the outcome of which could have profound implications for human rights, stability and the rule of law in the Americas. 

Even though the OAS’s core mandate involves the protection of democracy, the political divisions within its membership meant that the organization did very little to address the deterioration of human rights that occurred under former-President Hugo Chavez and now current-President Nicolas Maduro who has ruled the country by decree since November 2013. As Venezuela continues to slip closer to political and economic collapse, the lack of political will within the region to address the problems the country faces remains.

That started to change last year when Luis Almagro, the former minister of foreign affairs for Uruguay, became the Secretary General of the OAS. With several member states in arrears for their dues, the organization lacks the funding to continue all of its programs. Facing these budgetary constraints, Almagro has chosen to go back to the basics of the OAS and focus on democracy and human rights. And there is no country in the Americas where these are under threat as much as in Venezuela.

Ahead of this week’s meeting in Santo Domingo, Almagro invoked Article 20 of the OAS Democratic Charter, calling for the possible suspension of Venezuela from the organization due to the “alteration of constitutional regime that seriously impairs the democratic order.” While many observers see the move as long overdue, the political minefield that Venezuela represents still makes any move to address the problems there extremely difficult.

Almagro’s campaign has already made him some enemies, with representatives from Nicaragua calling for his ouster and Venezuela petitioning the OAS to “evaluate” Almagro’s behavior towards it. Even countries traditionally in favor of harsher actions towards Venezuela like the United States are stepping back from Almagro’s call for suspension. And as corruption scandals continue to plague other major members such as Brazil, Mexico and Argentina, there is also concern by some countries that they could be next on Almagro’s list of problems states.

But the political hesitation regarding human rights and democracy in Venezuela comes at a time when the chief organ of the OAS tasked with upholding human rights – the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) – is also facing severe funding problems that threaten its ability to investigate human rights violations.

The commission has been on the forefront of protecting human rights and democracy since its founding in 1959. Along with the more robust Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the IACHR is known for investigating both low and high profile cases, from the 1991 Barrios Altos massacre in Peru and the 2014 disappearance of 43 students in rural Mexico to DC voting rights and the protection of indigenous property rights under the US Indian Claims Commission. By being independent, it is often able to bypass the political machinations that plague the OAS at large and shed light on human rights issues even without strong political will by member states to confront them.

But due to a lack in funding, the IACHR is facing a situation where 40 per cent of its staff will be laid off at the end of July unless new financial commitments are received. While the IACHR receives part of its operating funds from the annual OAS budget, the bulk of its funds come from direct donations by member and non-member states.

With the refugee crisis in Europe commandeering the aid budgets of several European countries, funds that the IACHR is used to relying on are currently not available. Commitments by member states are also hard to come by as bolstering an independent human rights commission is rarely a high priority for those who fear coming under its scrutiny. Already the commission has cancelled all its remaining visits for the year, seriously curtailing its ability to investigate new and ongoing cases.

The OAS has a distinguished history when it comes to human rights, including its adoption at its founding of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, the first general international human rights treaty, predating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN later that year. Time and again, it has faced and overcome serious challenges, enabling many of its member states to emerge from dictatorships and military rule, reestablishing democratic governments and working to uphold the rights of the nearly one billion people who fall under its mandate. The IACHR has often been a key part of that transition, and one of the reasons why both North and South America are considered the most democratic regions in the world.

All of that now appears to be at risk. As Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, pointed out, it’s not just the future of Venezuela at stake this week in Santo Domingo but the future of the OAS.

One hopes the organization will find a way to do better than we have seen this week, and find a way to preserve not only the OAS, but the IACHR as well.