WASHINGTON, United States, Friday September 21, 2018 – A furore surrounded Luis Almagro, the Secretary-General of the Organization of American States (OAS), after the Associated Press (AP) reported him as encouraging military intervention in Venezuela to topple the government of President Nicolas Maduro.
The AP, on September 14, reported Almagro as saying: “With respect to a military intervention to overthrow Nicolas Maduro’s regime, I don’t think any option should be ruled out. What Nicolas Maduro’s regime is perpetrating are crimes against humanity, the violation of the human rights and the suffering of people that is inducing an exodus. Diplomatic actions should be the first priority, but we shouldn’t rule out any action.”
The reported remarks led to a flurry of outraged responses from left-wing groups in Latin America and the Caribbean and to the Venezuelan Vice President, the indomitable Delcey Rodriguez, tweeting that “Venezuela will refer Almagro to the United Nation and other international bodies since he has been using the OAS General Secretariat in a vulgar and grotesque manner in order to promote a military intervention in our homeland and an attack on the peace in Latin America and the Caribbean.”
Even eleven Latin American and Caribbean countries (members of the so-called ‘Lima Group’), normally supportive of a tough stance against the Maduro government, raised eyebrows. They issued a statement expressing their “rejection of any course of action or declaration that implies a military intervention or the exercise of violence, threat or the use of force against Venezuela”.
Whether it was the evident distance that several OAS member states were placing between themselves and Almagro, or his own sincere belief that AP had misquoted him, the Secretary-General used the public relations machinery of the OAS to deny the report of his remarks, and to interpret it in his own way.
On September 16, he denied that he “favoured armed aggression”, insisting that the report “is not true”. Almagro stated that in saying that, in relation to Venezuela, “all courses of action must be left available” and “no option should be disregarded”, he meant that actions should be taken within the Inter-American system as well as within the confines of public international law. “No one should dare to reframe or reposition my words in any other way”, he trumpeted.
What all this has laid bare is the increasing dysfunctionality of the OAS and its increasing drift away from serving the collective interest of its 34 member-states.
Shortly after Almagro’s assumption of the Secretary-General’s role in 2015, it became obvious that he was more “General” than “Secretary”. He is undoubtedly a “political” mind and a man of strong conviction who became contemptuous of the OAS Permanent Council, the organ responsible for the reflection and articulation of governments’ views on events and developments in the Americas. Swiftly, he separated the Secretary-General’s office from the Permanent Council, striking his own pose on issues and making his own statements.
The Permanent Council bears much of the blame for the rise of Almagro’s unauthorized outspokenness and its total lack of management of his role. For example, up to the time of writing this commentary, the Permanent Council has not convened a meeting to discuss the widespread report that Almagro encouraged a military intervention in a member state, or his own subsequent denial. Further, the Council preoccupies itself with matters such as celebrating birth and death anniversaries of poets, and issues that would be better left to technical committees. These matters all have their place and merit attention, but not by the Permanent Council which ought to deal with the pressing issues and with the hard task of negotiating collective and sustainable positions that would benefit the Americas as a whole.
In his September 16 remarks, published on the OAS website, Almagro made it clear that he is not so “attached to the position of Secretary-General”; nonetheless he “will not leave”. His passionate declaration about “fighting against the Venezuelan dictatorship until it falls” was palpable. This latter statement reveals a deeply personal position that is not consistent with the duties and obligations of the Secretary-General of an Organisation which should continuously work diplomatically and politically “to prevent possible causes of difficulties and to ensure the pacific settlement of disputes that may arise among the Member States” and “to seek the solution of political, juridical, and economic problems that may arise among them”.
Interestingly, Almagro frames the current situation in Venezuela in the context of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, where thousands were massacred between 1975 and 1979, and in the appalling 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Few would agree with Almagro that events in Venezuela deserve comparison with Cambodia and Rwanda. His exaggeration in this comparison departs from reality and weakens the constructive role of the OAS of which he is supposed to be the public face.
Almagro also invoked the unsettled concept, debated in the United Nations, of what he called “the Right to Protect” which he says is the last hope “for the victims and the oppressed”. But there is no such thing as a “right to protect” in the Inter-American system or in settled international law.
In 2005, at a high-level UN World Summit meeting, countries committed to the principle of the “responsibility” to protect, but they limited their responsibility to protecting their own populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Further, they accepted a collective responsibility to encourage and help each other uphold this commitment in accordance with the United Nations Charter.
Article 2.7 of the UN Charter is clear: “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state”. The OAS’ own charter mimics the restriction on interference in domestic affairs.
So, unless the member-states of the OAS wish to tear-up their own charter and disregard the UN Charter, the options available to them and to the Secretary-General are contained in the hard-work of diplomacy, which should include public condemnation of all parties that contribute to human suffering, to migration and to perils for neighbouring states.
That is the work that still lies before the OAS.
Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the US and the OAS. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto.