One Region
August 7, 2009
Handling of Honduras Crisis flawed from the start

Call it Latin American “hot blood” or “Commonwealth cool”, but there is definitely a marked difference between how the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Commonwealth handle conflicts in their member states.

Both the 53-nation Commonwealth, and the 34-nation OAS have had their share of Coup d’états, fraudulent elections and abuse of civil and human rights. And, both organizations have drawn up Declarations of Principle for their member states, infractions of which lead to penalties of some kind.{{more}}

But, whereas in the OAS, suspension of a state from membership of the organization was the first step taken in relation to Honduras where it was claimed a Coup d’état had occurred, in the Commonwealth suspension of a member state is an action of last resort; taken only after exhaustion of many initiatives.

Unlike the OAS, the Commonwealth has standing machinery designed to deal with breaches of the fundamental democratic principles to which it adheres. Among these is the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), which is a small group of ministers drawn from every region of the Commonwealth with the authority to engage groups within countries where principles have been breached and to work for the restoration of democracy.

Fiji, which experienced an overthrow of the government in 2006, has been suspended from the Councils of the Commonwealth ever since but not from the Commonwealth itself. In other words, the de facto government of Fiji cannot participate in any ministerial meetings or Conferences of Heads of Government, but the state continues to be regarded as part of the organization. This allows CMAG and the Secretary-General to remain engaged through their own initiatives and in efforts by others, such as the UN, to restore democracy and constitutionality.

Right now, the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Kamalesh Sharma, is working with the UN to encourage within Fiji a comprehensive political dialogue that is broad-based and inclusive of all major stakeholders in order to secure constitutional democracy.

The Commonwealth has never expelled a member state. In 1961, the Apartheid South African government withdrew itself in the face of widespread Commonwealth abhorrence of its racist policies; in 1972 the Pakistan government withdrew itself over recognition of the breakaway state of Bangladesh, and in 2003 the Robert Mugabe government withdrew Zimbabwe over the Commonwealth’s displeasure at his rigged elections and violent intimidation of opposition political parties.

Despite the withdrawal of South Africa, the Commonwealth continued to be engaged in the anti-apartheid struggle and contributed mightily to its downfall, to the freeing of Nelson Mandela and to the election of a Constitutional government on the basis of universal adult suffrage.

In all cases where the Commonwealth has had to manage infractions of its democratic principles, the process has not been swift or easy. It has required diligence, diplomacy and leverage. Even today, there are several instances of infractions of principles; some of them are being watched and others are being dangerously ignored.

The system in the Commonwealth is not perfect and there is much room for improvement, but at least it has a system which includes the watchdog group, CMAG, and the Secretary-General’s office itself.

This does not appear to be the case in the OAS. As Peter Hakim, President of the Inter-American Dialogue, recently observed: OAS “Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza appeared overly identified with a particular course of action that did not bear fruit. The weaknesses of the OAS in dealing with democratic breakdowns and other crises include (1) its difficulty in addressing critical situations in their early stages because the organization must either wait for a consensus of its members or have the authorization of the government in power (specifically, the executive branch, not congress, the judiciary, or the opposition); and (2) the challenge of reaching consensus-on principles, objectives, and implementation strategies-among 34 countries given the hemisphere’s political and ideological divisions. The OAS’ crisis response capacity could be improved by giving the organization’s secretariat more operational autonomy or by creating an executive group (like the UN Security Council) with greater flexibility in its decision making, but neither approach would today have significant support among OAS members.”

The OAS Secretary-General was given 72 hours to find a solution to the Honduran situation. He might just as well have been asked to push a huge boulder up a steep mountain. There was no way it could have been achieved given the high emotion that existed on all sides.

In giving him such a mandate, the OAS General Assembly was clearly pressed into their decision by a group of countries led by Venezuela, Argentina, Nicaragua and Bolivia (the key members of ALBA) who wanted their man, Manuel Zelaya, immediately back in the Presidency whether or not he had been removed in accordance with the Honduran Constitution and law. As an important aside, let me say in this connection that however legally correct the impeachment of Zelaya may have been, the interim regime wrong-footed itself by having the military remove him from the country.

OAS Deputy Secretary-General Albert Ramdin rightly reminded that Secretary General Insulza acted under the orders of the General Assembly which had defined his role including that he “did not have an order to talk with representatives” of the interim government. What sort of mediation could the OAS expect of its Secretary-General in that context, except to fail?

Canada which is a leading member of the OAS and an original member of the Commonwealth has now begun to demonstrate some misgivings about the OAS approach to the Honduran problem. Canada’s foreign ministry and its public servants would know well, from the Commonwealth experience, that gradualism, constant diplomacy and diligence are the elements of conflict resolution and that it is “cool” not “hot blood” that have painstakingly built the machinery in the Commonwealth for addressing problems in member states.

Like Canada, twelve Caribbean countries are also members of both the Commonwealth and the OAS. They too should have learned from the lessons of the Commonwealth in dealing with the circumstances that Honduras threw-up. And, part of the lesson should have been that the hands of the Secretary-General, as the chief diplomat of the OAS should not be tied, and suspension is not a first step.

The OAS needs permanent machinery both for dealing with infringements of its Democratic Charter and for early warnings of conflicts that need to be resolved within its member states and between them. The brewing row between Venezuela and Colombia should be at the top of its priorities.

Sir Ronald Saunders is a business consultant and former Caribbean diplomat.
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