An OAS loss of credibility

The Organization of American States (OAS) has lost credibility as a multilateral institution capable of contributing to a resolution of the growing conflict in Venezuela.

There are two reasons for this. The primary one is the hostile behaviour toward the Venezuelan government by the Secretary-General Luis Almagro. The other is the strong position, adopted by a handful but powerful group of countries in the organization, that has been consistently and openly vexed with the Chavez/Maduro government.

Despite the caution of other member states, the small but powerful group of countries has repeatedly issued statements that lack balance and portrays them as less than neutral. This has led to alienation of the Venezuelan government whose involvement in any solution to the Venezuelan issue is vital.

Before continuing further, it should be stated that there are no clean hands in Venezuela and no paragons of virtue. The country is locked in a battle for power between political parties that has paralyzed its capacity to formulate and implement a plan for dealing with a weakened economic situation that has affected the country as a whole.

The conflict that has arisen –– and that intensifies everyday –– has engulfed the country. The resolution of the conflict resides in the political will of the governing and opposition parties to agree on a ‘Venezuelan solution’ to their national problem. Despite attempts at mediation –– even by a high representative of the Pope, neither side has demonstrated the spirit of compromise or reconciliation that is fundamental to formulating a solution.

Each side appears to want victory even at the expense of the country’s turmoil and the population’s torment. In adopting entrenched positions and intensifying the conflict, each side has sought allies from among the other 33 member-states of the OAS. The opposition parties have found their greatest supporter in Secretary-General Almagro whose public statements against the Venezuelan government has become more strident and vitriolic over the last year.

But, by adopting what is now regarded as an entirely partisan stance, Mr Almagro has deprived the OAS of playing any role as mediator or honest broker in the Venezuelan situation. Because of his unauthorized actions, the Government of Venezuela distrusts the OAS and refuses to countenance any participation by it in the Venezuelan situation.

Undoubtedly, Mr Almagro’s toxic statements about the Venezuelan government are motivated by his own personal feelings. But, he is the Secretary-General of an organization of 34 member states and his public statements cannot be divorced from his role as a hemispheric civil servant.  That is a fundamental principle above which no Secretary-General of any organization – regional, multilateral or international – should set himself or herself.

Further, as Secretary-General, Mr Almagro’s task should be to douse the fires of conflicts; not to fan the flames. Yet, in Venezuela, that is precisely what he has been doing. Within the OAS itself, as Secretary-General, Mr Almagro should be working overtime to build a consensus about Venezuela among all member states.

Instead, he has sat back, making no attempt to bridge divides among member countries about an appropriate response to the Venezuelan situation from the organization as a whole. Almagro is a former foreign minister of Uruguay and his own former President, Jose “Pepe” Mujica, who would know him better than many, has stated publicly that “what Almagro is doing from the OAS is a danger, not only for Venezuela, but for the entire continent.”

On May 17, amid frenzied activity by the representatives of the OAS member states to try to agree on a ‘Meeting of Consultation’ by ministerial representatives to discuss Venezuela as a “problem of an urgent nature and of common interest”, Mr Almagro pre-empted the purpose and outcome of any such meeting, slated for May 31, by stating publicly that: “We must get past the notion that dialogue or mediation is a solution to the crisis in Venezuela”.

In a letter to the President of the European Parliament, Mr Almagro presented what he, in his individual wisdom, believes should be done. This includes, “targeted sanctions” that would “increase the pressure on the regime to restore the Constitutional order and hold elections”. His statement is an attempt to corner the representatives of member states and to frame the parameters of their discussion and decisions.

From all this, it should be obvious that the Secretary-General has compromised the OAS’ constructive role in Venezuela. In doing so, he has not helped the cause of any party in Venezuela; he has served only to harden the position on both sides. He has also weakened the integrity and authority of the OAS. At the very least, if they are to salvage any credibility at all, the representatives of the member states should disassociate themselves from Mr Almagro’s remarks and remind him of his role as set out in Article 118 of the OAS Charter.

Article 18 states that, in the performance of his duties, the Secretary-General “shall refrain from any action that may be incompatible with [his] position as [an] international officer responsible only to the Organization”.  Beyond this, all the member states have to recall the architecture of the OAS that guides their conduct. A pillar of that architecture is Article 1 which states, in unequivocal language, that none of the provisions of its Charter “authorizes it to intervene in matters that are within the internal jurisdictions of the member states”.

In other words, the first task of the member states of the OAS should have been to secure the agreement of the Government of Venezuela and the opposition parties for a role by the OAS. That would not have been easy.  It is the hard graft that constitutes measured diplomacy and it entails building confidence all around.  But it was – and still is – necessary.

When I led an OAS delegation to Haiti in February 2016 at the height of a constitutional crisis that could have led to great violence, it was at the invitation of the President and amid deep suspicion by opposition parties that had to be overcome. Confidence building, trust, allaying of fears and encouraging patriotic duty by all parties was part of the process.

If the May 31 ministerial ‘Meeting of Consultation’ takes place, those are the elements that every country should advocate; they are also the elements to which all the parties in Venezuela should respond positively.

(Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the Organization of American States (OAS). The views expressed are his own. Responses and previous commentaries www.sirronaldsanders.com)

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