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  • International Organizations & DemocracyThe OAS and Democratic Governance
  • Heraldo Muñoz (bio)

We find ourselves at an exceptional moment in history. The Cold War has ended, markets are expanding, and representative democracy prevails, either in reality or as an aspiration of most people even in the remotest comers of the earth, from Poland to South Africa and from Chile to Thailand. The end of the Cold War has improved the prospects for promoting and safeguarding democracy in the Americas, for it can now be defended without risk of entanglement in the East-West confrontation.

This, then, is democracy's hour; we must take advantage of it. The democratic idea has gained legitimacy worldwide; dictatorship of any shade or color has been discredited. As the French political scientist Robert Bonnaud has noted, from the standpoint of political philosophy one might argue that while the first part of the twentieth century was marked by the notion of equality, the second half is drawing to a close with the stamp of democracy and freedom.1

Although the efforts of ordinary people are the primary reason for the democratic gains of the 1980s and early 1990s, it is also true that the international community, including the Organization of American States (OAS), played a major role in this trend. With representative democracy and freely elected governments prevailing virtually everywhere in the Western Hemisphere, the nations of the Americas have joined in a common effort to safeguard and consolidate their democratic regimes.

The OAS took a historic step toward this goal in June 1991, when the foreign ministers of its member nations gathered in Santiago, Chile, to sign a "Commitment to Democracy and the Renewal of the Inter-American [End Page 29] System" and adopt Resolution 1080 on representative democracy, which set up mechanisms for an automatic response to any illegal interruption of the democratic process in any country of the hemisphere.2 These two instruments would later allow the OAS to act promptly in the cases of Haiti and Peru, respectively, as is discussed at length in the article by Peter Hakim that follows.

While the Santiago Commitment and the resolution on representative democracy are both milestones in the effective safeguarding of democracy in the Americas, they are no more than recent expressions of a trend toward the formal and collective affirmation of longstanding principles, purposes, and measures. In effect, there now exists a full-fledged inter-American "doctrine" on democratic governance, a doctrine that is reflected not only in the OAS Charter, but also and more importantly, in a multitude of declarations, resolutions, and actions that reach back several decades.

In other words, the Americas are a region where the moral, political, and juridical basis for safeguarding democracy and human rights has been cultivated with exceptional thoroughness. This situation—not always matched by concrete actions—has led some critics to assert, particularly in view of recent OAS initiatives to defend democratic rule, that American states might end up curtailing their own sovereign and equal status among the nations of the world in order to provide for measures against those states that refuse to be held to high democratic standards. But here we should recall that the countries of the Americas were much more demanding of themselves in the area of human rights than countries of other continents long before such rights began to enjoy the international acceptance that they have today. The nations of the Western Hemisphere worked hard to add human rights provisions to the United Nations Charter in 1946, and demonstrated international leadership in the matter by adopting the American Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, seven months before the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man was signed at the United Nations.

Toward a Doctrine of Democratic Governance

The recognition of democracy as the guiding principle of the American states developed gradually but persistently, starting with an initial moral commitment and proceeding to the binding obligation laid down in the OAS Charter. Democratic government has been a constant goal of the peoples of the Americas almost since the time of their independence from Europe and the collapse of absolute monarchy as a form of government. As early as 1826, there was...


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