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  • International Organizations & DemocracyThe OAS-Putting Principles into Practice
  • Peter Hakim (bio)

The notion that violations of democratic practice and human rights in any one country of the Americas should be the concern of all countries is not a wholly new concept in inter-American affairs. This idea, as the preceding article by Heraldo Mufioz explains, has a long history and, indeed, is embedded in the legal framework of the Organization of American States (OAS). In one form or another, it has served to justify a variety of OAS actions.

Over the past few years, the OAS has become a far more active and influential institution. During the 1970s and 1980s, it had been largely irrelevant and ignored in inter-American relations. Stymied by continual friction and mutual suspicion between the United States and Latin America, the prevalence of military rule in much of the region, and Washington's unilateralist impulses and Cold War preoccupations, the OAS sat on the sidelines as the major issues played themselves out in other forums. Called upon to help resolve the Panama crisis in 1989, the Organization suffered a humiliating setback when it was unable either to end General Manuel Noriega's rule or to prevent the United States from invading in order to depose him.

Only a few months later, however, the OAS began a remarkable turnabout, starting with the Nicaraguan presidential elections of February 1990. At first, the nations of the hemisphere appeared to confirm the impotence of the OAS by recruiting the United Nations to take the lead role in monitoring the elections. Yet in a show of surprising resilience, the OAS joined forces with the UN in Nicaragua and ended up playing [End Page 39] a vital role in ensuring the fairness of the electoral process, assisting the transition to the new government of Violeta Chamorro, and participating in subsequent efforts to put an end to political violence.

The Organization's resurgence continued through late 1990 and early 1991. It took the lead in monitoring a string of elections in such troubled settings as Haiti, E1 Salvador, Paraguay, and Suriname—in each case helping to produce a set of results that were generally accepted as fair and legitimate. The OAS General Assembly was thus building on a string of recent accomplishments, as well as on many legal precedents, when in June 1991 it approved the Santiago Commitment and its associated resolutions on democracy. These documents mandated an immediate meeting of the Organization's Permanent Council following the rupture of democratic rule in any country of the Americas, and the adoption of "efficacious, timely, and expeditious procedures to ensure the promotion and defense of representative democracy."

The Santiago documents were pathbreaking in two critical ways: first, they obligated hemispheric governments to take action against violations of the democratic order anywhere in the region. Second, such action was to be triggered solely by events within a country, regardless of their international repercussions. These principles received further reinforcement recently with the approval of the Washington Protocol, a revision to the OAS Charter that would allow the General Assembly to suspend the membership of a country whose government has assumed power illegally.

Some skeptics have observed that, despite the good intentions, none of this comes with any teeth. In the face of an armed overthrow of a democratic government, all that is actually required of the OAS is the bureaucratic response of convening a meeting. And, in fact, nothing more is demanded.

The Cases of Haiti and Peru

Yet in the first two cases of democratic breakdown that occurred since Resolution 1080 took effect—in Haiti in August 1991 and Peru in April 1992—the OAS and its member governments did not stop at empty rhetoric or bureaucratic maneuvering. Although democratic rule has yet to be restored in either country, significant multilateral initiatives, supported by the United States, Canada, and nearly every country of Latin America and the Caribbean, were mounted in both cases.1 Clearly, more forceful and effective responses could have been devised, but the actions taken went far beyond any previous OAS reaction to an internal violation of the democratic order.

Particularly noteworthy was the OAS's decision to act without...


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