For years, U.S. lawmakers have griped that the Organization of American States (OAS) — which is based in Washington and is largely funded by U.S. taxpayers — has become increasingly bureaucratic, unmanageable, irrelevant and even anti-American.
This autumn, Congress finally did something about it.
In early July, the Senate approved the Organization of American States Revitalization and Reform Act of 2013 by unanimous consent. On Sept. 17, the House of Representatives passed the bill by a 383-24 vote, and it was signed into law by President Obama two weeks later — thereby becoming the first piece of legislation to be signed by the president since Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who introduced the bill, took over as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“The OAS is the Western Hemisphere’s premier multilateral institution, and yet its effectiveness has declined in recent years,” Menendez said in a prepared statement after the bill’s passage. “For Western Hemisphere nations to truly thrive, urgent reforms are required to enhance the OAS’s strategic planning processes, and improve administration and financial management.”
Yet the wording of this new law is relatively bland — and it doesn’t mention any country by name other than the United States. Not Cuba, which was suspended from the OAS in 1962 following Fidel Castro’s rise to power and allowed to rejoin in 2009 (though it declined). Not Venezuela, whose late firebrand president, Hugo Chávez, spearheaded a wave of anti-American sentiment throughout the region. And not Ecuador, which under Chávez protégé Rafael Correa has become one of the most repressive nations in Latin America for journalists trying to report the news.
Simply put, the legislation asks the OAS to review its core functions at least once a year, reduce the number of mandates not directly related to those functions — and accept new mandates only after completing an analysis of the financial costs and describing how that specific mandate would advance the organization’s core mission. That mission is to promote democracy, human rights, security and development.
The law also urges the OAS to adopt, within five years, an assessed fee structure “that assures the financial sustainability of the organization” so that no single member state pays more than 50 percent of the total (the United States currently provides about 60 percent). It also calls for “merit-based, transparent hiring, firing and promotion standards and processes.”
In addition, said lawmakers, the 35-member OAS should work more closely with another Washington-based body — the Inter-American Development Bank — on issues related to economic development, and it should combine its General Assembly and Summit of the Americas events geographically and chronologically in the years in which they coincide.
The law — co-sponsored in the Senate by Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — gives Secretary of State John Kerry 180 days after its enactment to present Congress with a “multiyear strategy” progress report outlining exactly how the organization will be reformed.
“Key OAS strengths,” it says, “lie in strengthening peace and security, promoting and consolidating representative democracy, regional dispute resolution, election assistance and monitoring, fostering economic growth and development cooperation, facilitating trade, combating illicit drug trafficking and transnational crime, and support for the Inter-American Human Rights System.”
The bill is a far cry from a Republican-sponsored proposal passed by the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 2011 that voted to defund U.S. contributions to the OAS altogether, accusing the bloc of promoting anti-democratic regimes.
“The House wisely refused to take up the underlying legislation defunding the OAS at the time, but the sheer recklessness of that bill did much to erode our influence and credibility at the regional body,” Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the senior Democratic member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a recent statement applauding the Revitalization and Reform Act of 2013. “While the OAS can certainly improve, it has clearly demonstrated its importance and utility as a multilateral body charged with promoting human rights and democratic governance.”
Yet Albert Ramdin, assistant secretary-general of the OAS, doesn’t see this most recent legislation as particularly helpful either.
“In a sense, this is a disappointment because it will not serve the purpose of the OAS. It will make it more difficult for us to strengthen democracy and foster peace,” Ramdin warned in a phone interview from his native Suriname. “If they’re going to cut resources from the OAS, there will be a budget issue. I think we are coming close to a very difficult situation. Certain programs will have to be stopped.”
At present, the United States funds 59 percent of the organization’s $83 million annual budget; Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina and Colombia make up most of the remaining 41 percent. Separately, the OAS receives $70 million a year in voluntary contributions from OAS member states and permanent observers for specific purposes.
Although the group’s budget is a pittance compared to total U.S. federal expenditures, some members of Congress have long viewed the OAS as an unwieldy bureaucracy that talks about democracy but does little else.
“We know that the Hill was not satisfied with the work of the OAS,” Ramdin told The Washington Diplomat. “Some members of Congress felt we should do more in terms of responding to countries where democracy, human rights and freedom of the press is not seen as at the highest level. As a consequence, they want to put more financial pressure on the organization.”
In fact, one of the OAS’s loudest critics on the Hill is Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-born Republican whose South Florida district is home to tens of thousands of fellow Cuban exiles. During House deliberations on the bill, the lawmaker said she was “deeply disappointed that the OAS has failed to live up to the principles” of the Inter-American Democratic Charter.
“The OAS should be, but is not, an important regional body that stands up for democratic principles, that promotes the rule of law and condemns human rights violations. However, the OAS has strayed. This bill is a positive step forward to bring it back onto the right path,” said Ros-Lehtinen, chastising the 65-year-old organization for letting member states ignore their own constitutions when it comes to human rights.
“Has the OAS spoken out against the illegitimate elections in Venezuela? How about the illegitimate elections in Nicaragua? Or what about the continued human rights abuses against the people of Cuba?” she demanded.
Many Republicans accuse the OAS of bowing to repressive states such as Venezuela. Conversely, the bloc has also been called a puppet of the United States by Chávez himself.
A big part of the problem is the “challenge of leadership at the OAS,” said a senior staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — an obvious reference to Chile’s José Miguel Insulza, who’s been secretary-general of the OAS since 2005.
“But there’s also a technical side of this, in which the OAS has become a bloated, multilateral bureaucracy. It has accepted far too many missions, down to the point where the OAS is officially responsible for managing the art museum right behind its headquarters,” complained the staffer, who asked not to be named. “There’s a firm belief that the OAS needs to get back to the priorities on which it was founded: promoting representative democracy, managing security, and promoting strong economic growth.”
The staffer added: “A number of new challenges have arisen. Divisive political leaders have sought to block productive debate at the OAS, knowing that the lack of a unified response would make it easier to undermine governance at home. In addition, the threat posed by transnational crime and narcotics networks has evolved faster than the OAS can respond. We’re calling on Secretary Kerry to put in place a series of bold reforms. Sen. Menendez is personally invested in making this a success.”
Carlos Lauría, an official with the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), is especially concerned about the decreasing influence of the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights under Insulza’s watch.
“This commission has played a decisive role as the last resort for citizens whose human rights have been violated after they’ve exhausted all internal legal remedies,” said Lauría, a former journalist from Argentina who’s now CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas. “It has been key in denouncing flagrant human rights abuses and laws that guarantee immunity for military dictatorships. And the commission’s special rapporteur for freedom of expression has been instrumental in the fight against the criminalizing of defamation, and the need for judiciaries in Latin America to combat impunity in cases of murdered journalists.”
But in the last few years, Lauría warned, populist presidents led by Ecuador’s Rafael Correa have won preliminary decisions by the OAS that “could gut the system that protects human rights and press freedom” — all with the tacit support of regional heavyweights such as Brazil.
“In Ecuador, the repressive policies of the Correa administration are creating huge challenges to report the news freely. Journalists are already censoring themselves, which has a chilling effect,” Lauría told The Diplomat. “Insulza is secretary-general of the OAS, and this situation where countries have tried to diminish the role of the rapporteur has happened during his rule, so he shares some responsibility for this.”
Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, agrees that the OAS is beset with problems — but he also sympathizes with Insulza to an extent.
“The OAS has long been criticized for lacking relevance. But in the last couple of years, the region has become more fragmented than ever. The U.S. is distracted, and Chávez was a very polarizing force. This makes it hard for any organization to come up with any kind of coherent strategy,” said Shifter, adding that Insulza — who has three more years as secretary-general— is serving under very difficult circumstances. “There has been backsliding on democracy and a decline in the will to respond to democratic crises. Insulza’s response is that there’s a limit to what he can do.”
That’s because the OAS operates by consensus, requiring a unanimous vote to make most decisions. “As political ideologies have diversified within the region, this has made it difficult for the OAS to make quick, decisive calls to action,” wrote Brianna Lee in a 2012 backgrounder for the Council on Foreign Relations. “The polarization between American states has also led to one of the OAS’s other major shortcomings: its many mandates unrelated to the core mission.”
That’s partly why Shifter called the OAS Reform Act a positive step — as long as it’s taken to the next level.
“It’s hard to disagree with anything that brings together such a broad spectrum. It was not terribly detailed or focused,” he said. “Now comes the hard part. We all know the OAS needs to reform. What does that mean? And to what extent will the U.S. really be engaged in that process and shape a constructive result?”
Asked that same question, Ramdin responded carefully. Like the law itself, he declined to identify specific countries.
“It is important for the United States to continue supporting organizations like the OAS, which still makes every effort to strengthen democracies, defend human rights and promote the rule of law. It would not be a good thing if countries retreat from that. I believe that if we want to strengthen democracies, we should do two things: one, to support the OAS even more — giving us the tools we need — and two, to engage much more intensively those countries which are seen as not being on the right track.”
He added that the venerable institution clearly has an image problem.
“We should do more to publicize the many areas in which the OAS is helping countries establish a democratic environment for security and economic growth — exactly the things Congress wants us to do. But we’re getting fewer channels to showcase what we are doing,” he said, noting that two years ago, member states voted to kill the OAS’s award-winning bimonthly magazine, Americas, after more than 50 years of continuous publication. That saved $200,000 from the overall budget.
“I’m not putting the blame on a misunderstanding with the outside world,” Ramdin said, “but we have to work harder in getting the word out.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.