By Sir Ronald Sanders
WASHINGTON, United States, Friday June 24, 2016 – On June 23, the Permanent Council of the Organisation of American States (OAS) held a meeting called by the Secretary-General, Luis Almagro, under Article 20 of the Inter-Democratic Charter, to present a report on Venezuela to the 34-member body. Below is the statement I made at the meeting as Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador.
My delegation regrets very much all the circumstances that have brought us to this meeting. The Organisation of American States has been weakened by them. Whatever the outcome of our actions today, the Organisation will be even more greatly damaged than it already is.
Our countries established this Organisation ‘to achieve an order of peace and justice, to promote their solidarity, to strengthen their collaboration, and to defend their sovereignty, their territorial integrity and their independence’. We have strayed from those fundamental objectives.
Solidarity and collaboration have been sacrificed for political and ideological advantage; egos have overtaken statesmanship; diplomacy has been forsaken for newspaper headlines. Today, to the outside world, this is an arena for public confrontation; for scoring points on each other; for discord not accord. This is not a moment for pride.
Having said that, my delegation holds the view that the item on our agenda today is not properly before us. We are aware that the Secretary-General has been fortified by a legal opinion from officers of his Secretariat, to call this Special Meeting of the Council to present a report on Venezuela under Article 20 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter.
My delegation is not persuaded that a legal opinion from the Secretariat is the most convincing basis on which to proceed with this controversial and doubtful course of action. In other inter-governmental organisations of which my government is a part, when a member state becomes a contentious matter, legal opinions are sought from outside the institution, and usually from thee eminent jurists from member states. Of the three opinions, the organisation is guided by the two that most closely reflect a common view.
This procedure is followed precisely to establish the independence and integrity of the actions that might follow from such legal opinions. There should never be any doubt concerning the legal basis for our actions. In this regard, my delegation remains unconvinced that Article 20 of the Inter-Democratic Charter can be invoked by either the Secretary-General or any member state.
The Article is clear. It states that the convocation of the Permanent Council may be requested by any member state or the Secretary-General “in the event of an unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime that seriously impairs the democratic order in a member state”.
But, there has been no “unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime” in Venezuela. That county has an elected government, and it has a National Assembly which was democratically elected, as we heard two days ago from the distinguished former Head of Government of Spain who was an observer of those elections. What is occurring in Venezuela is a struggle for power between several political factions, but as of now there has been no ‘unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime’. In this connection, the basis for the convocation of this meeting is deeply flawed, and on questionable grounds.
Even if the invocation of Article 20 had any validity, what are the actions that can flow from it? The Article says that this council, “depending on the situation, may undertake the necessary diplomatic initiatives, including good offices to foster the restoration of democracy”.
Regrettably, even if a situation did exist that could justify initiatives and good offices, our Organisation has been disqualified from playing such a role in any way that could be regarded as credible. The good faith and objectivity of the OAS has been squandered by an unseemly, undiplomatic and unhelpful public quarrel between the Secretary-General and the sitting, elected head of government of Venezuela.
The capacity of the OAS to play any good offices or diplomatic role in Venezuela was also undermined by a public statement issued by 15 member countries on their own, after they failed to get support from the majority of member states at the OAS General Assembly last week.
Therefore, the validity of invoking Article 20 is not only extremely doubtful, but its invocation would lead to no practical purpose for this Organisation. Indeed, it works against any objective to promote peaceful and constructive dialogue within Venezuela, since it strengthens those within Venezuela who would use it to delay genuine efforts for national discourse.
None of this is to say that circumstances in Venezuela do not require mediation and good offices to bring the factions to the table of negotiation. If there is one thing upon which we can all agree is that such a national negotiation in Venezuela is imperative.
What we all want in Venezuela is peace and tranquillity and steady progress toward a political compact that is based on constitutionality and the rule of law. That is why the OAS should encourage and support, as best it can, the current initiative being undertaken by three former heads of government from Spain, Panama and the Dominican Republic. The group has been accepted by all parties as genuine honest brokers; they are experienced politicians and leaders; they have the best chance of success.
My delegation is also aware that the problem Venezuela faces is not only political. Indeed, more fundamental is a financial crisis that has helped to feed political turmoil. We appreciate that the financial crisis, resulting in large part from a rapid decline in the world price of Venezuela’s principal commodity, oil, has caused hardship and deprivation across the country. My delegation would like to see the circumstances of the Venezuelan people improved, even as the trio of former Heads of Government seeks to promote a political compact.
In the midst of the global financial crisis that began in 2008, Venezuela played a significant role in stabilising the economies of many Caribbean countries. Indeed, it is true to say that without the help of Venezuela, our economies would have collapsed with all the consequences for increased poverty, higher unemployment, escalating crime, and floods of migration, including refugees.
The problem would have spread from our sub-region to the shores of many other countries in this hemisphere. Therefore, my government has authorised me to inform this Permanent Council that, should Venezuela want it, we are prepared to join with other interested nations of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) to explore with Venezuela how best we may make a meaningful contribution to alleviating the social and economic challenges that confront that sister-state of our American family.
Given all these circumstances, my delegation does not support the agenda item before us. The application of Article 20, in the absence of a dialogue mechanism will not restore democratic order in Venezuela. We urge that this Council resolve to support the current political initiative by the group of three former Heads of Government and gave it time to do its work.
In the meantime, all of us should tone down our own rhetoric, return to the highest diplomatic practices and seek to uphold the historic mission of the Americas “to live together in peace and, through their mutual understanding and respect for the sovereignty of each one, to provide for the betterment of all, in independence, in equality and under law”.
At the end of the debate, the Permanent Council took note of the report presented by the Secretary-General. No other action was taken.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sir Ronald Sanders, Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the US and OAS, and Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London University and Massey College, Toronto University.