Stein: OAS needs to put house in order

Uruguay and Guatemala have nominated candidates to replace Jose Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the 34-country Organization of American States. In the second part of an occasional series leading up to January’s vote, columnist Andres Oppenheimer asks former Guatemalan Vice President Eduardo Stein five questions about his plans for the OAS. Excerpts:

Which specific changes would you make at the OAS if elected Secretary General?

▪ The next Secretary General must take a proactive role in shaping a regional consensus on the organization’s essential mission of promoting and defending representative democracy and human rights. And also the diversity and wealth of democratic quests in the hemisphere, as long as they favor the well-being of all the population.

▪ The OAS needs an adequate political and administrative management that should begin by putting the house in order, a thorough review of its resources and begin to solve its financial deficit, which implies the review the actual system of annual funding by member states. Also, we should better prioritize the (OAS) agenda and establish efficient internal mechanisms to allow the organization to better react to the changes and political dynamics with emphasis in prevention, negotiation and conflict resolution, that tend to weaken the member states´ democratic systems.

Panamá has invited Cuba to the Summit of the Americas to be held in that country in 2015. The United States opposes Cuba’s participation, saying that under Summit of the Americas and OAS rules, only democratic countries can participate in these summits. Venezuela and its allies, on the other hand, say that if Cuba is not invited, they will not attend. Who is right?

▪ The invitation per se has already become a non-issue. I believe there is an emerging consensus in the region that Cuba should be represented at the Summit of the Americas, and my impression is that the Cuban leader is eager to participate.

▪ The Summit should be an opportunity for our leaders to get together to discuss the pressing issues that impact the well-being of all of our people. And also an opportunity for both the Cuban and the U.S. presidents to draft constructive pathways for future better understanding and overcome the anachronistic and detrimental straightjacket of the blockade.

▪ We should all be more concerned about the agenda than about the invitations. We should spend our time preparing for a meeting that will address critical issues like access to quality education and health, the eradication of hunger and illiteracy, citizen security, economic opportunity and global competitiveness, and, of course, the state of democracy and human rights.

Considering that many of us regard the OAS Human Rights Commission and the OAS Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression as the OAS’ most valuable agencies, what is your opinion of the efforts of Ecuador, Venezuela and their allies to make changes in both of those agencies?

▪ Every member state has the right to be heard on these issues, and my impression is that the proposals made by a number of governments were thoroughly and vigorously debated.

▪ Some governments have expressed specific concerns about the Commission. And a good number of member states have made very clear that they consider the Commission’s work one of the most important contributions of the Inter-American system. I come from a country where the timely and expedient work of the Human Rights Commission saved the lives of individuals, of familiaes, and even entire communities.

▪ I believe that the Commission has a very important job to do. It is certainly not the role of the Secretary General to interfere with how they carry out their mission. My role as Secretary General would be to defend the importance of these entities and of the binding human rights treaties they represent.

Do you think last year’s elections in Venezuela were free and fair? Should the OAS take steps that it hasn’t taken in recent to insure that its member countries not only hold free elections, but also have fair and balanced electoral processes?

▪ The way in which the question is asked facilitates the answer: it implies that it is not only the day of the voting that is important. But the entire electoral process. Which starts with the conditions for true and unfettered citizen participation, unrestricted political rights to create and nurture parties, free access to media, etc.

▪ An essential ingredient is that the OAS must be invited by a member state before it can observe elections.

▪ And when the OAS deploys a mission, it is always more effective and useful if it has had sufficient time to examine the political context, the conditions to participate and the campaign environment and evaluate the technical preparations. Rather than arrive a couple of days before the voting starts.

▪ The Inter-American Democratic Charter makes very clear that representative democracy is about more than elections. To the extent that our governments adhere to these principles of the rule of law, respect for democracy and human rights, their people are better served. I would hope that every member state will be open to that inter-American solidarity, which contributes to stability and prosperity in the region as a whole.

Your critics say that, despite a generally good record on human rights, you have made a major mistake in trying to protect former dictator Efrain Rios Montt from genocide charges in Guatemala. What is your response?

▪ I never did such a thing. A group of 12 citizens from different backgrounds, with direct involvement in Guatemala´s public affairs and the peace process, expressed — over a year ago in two public texts — our concern about the need all of our society had for a rigorous due process in an emblematic trial that seemed solely concentrated on genocide charges that is extremely difficult to prove and seemed to obviate other crimes against humanity.

▪ We insisted that all atrocities and crimes against humanity should be examined and brought to justice: the forced displacement of families and entire communities, the tortures, the forced disappearances, the massacres.

▪ We never pretended to “protect” anybody. Our main concern, in any case, was to contribute to the future of peace, justice and reconciliation in our country.

By Andres Oppenheimer, Miami Herald

November 9, 2014

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