The John Kerry who visited Antigua, Guatemala as our diplomat-in-chief attending the general assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) was much less a critic of the OAS this time than he was when he served in the U.S. Senate.
Indeed, the secretary of state’s comments last week were much more conciliatory about how the OAS needed to return to its core mission of promoting human rights, democracy and development.
A change of tone, but not a change of tune
Three years ago, then-Sen. John Kerry — along with his fellow Sen. Robert Menendez — called the OAS “a grazing pasture for third-string diplomats.” They went on to say that the OAS was “sadly, a culture of consensus [that] has often been a breeding ground of ideas that reflect the lowest common denominator, rather than the highest ambitions of diplomacy and cooperation.”
For the United States, the OAS remains a forum that brings together all the nations of the hemisphere, except Cuba. It has 68 observer states which include countries such as China, Germany, Albania and Yemen. But the OAS also presents a dilemma for U.S. policymakers.
It is not the only game in town when it comes to multilateral options for the region. The Union of South American States (UNASUR), the Community of Latin America and the Caribbean (CELAC) and the ALBA countries — representing the ideological supporters of the populist left, including Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua — all offer alternative venues for multilateral engagement, without a U.S. presence.
The OAS as a weak link
But what about the big issues that the hemisphere still faces? The central focus of the general assembly was to address the OAS-commissioned report addressing the crisis of drugs and citizen insecurity. But even with an innovative report, no real consensus about a specific approach emerged from the delegates, except to say that they would continue to explore the different options that were recommended to address the illegal flow of drugs in this hemisphere.
The U.S.’ statement reflected the consensus of any new actions arising out of the general assembly by welcoming the Declaration of Antigua, “For a Comprehensive Policy Against the World Drug Problem in the Americas.” It went on to reaffirm “the commitment of the nations of the hemisphere to work in partnership to strengthen the rule of law, stem the flow of illegal drugs and engage in best practices with regard to prevention, rehabilitation and treatment of our citizens affected by drug addiction and abuse.” This was certainly not news, but rather the status quo ante.
What is new, however, is a growing division among the countries of the hemisphere and the U.S. in terms of legalization of certain substances like marijuana. While the OAS declaration made no mention of legalization, some countries such as Colombia, Guatemala and Uruguay are experiencing policy shifts regarding the issue.
The shift reflects a greater emphasis on the public health approaches to managing our drug policy — rather than focusing all our attention on criminalization. There will be a special session of the OAS general assembly to be convened in 2014 that will revisit the issue of legalization, but at this time, the U.S. remains committed to a prohibitionist camp.
It is ironic that in a region that signed on a decade ago to the Inter-America Democratic Charter, the OAS has remained a weak link in enforcing that commitment in the Americas. Recent events — such as flawed presidential elections in March in Venezuela or the overturning of the conviction of former Guatemalan President Rios Montt just one week before the general assembly — challenge the progress of human rights and respect for the rule of law, not to mention democratic values. And these examples do not begin to cover earlier challenges to democracy, such as the failed coup attempt in Honduras in 2009, or the removal of an elected president in Paraguay in 2012.
John Kerry is needed to revitalize the OAS
If the OAS is to return to its stature as the premier multilateral organization of the hemisphere, it will take more than a general assembly that was silent on key issues to fend off the challenges of other multilateral competitors arising out of frustration with the institution and even with the United States.
If the OAS is to be revitalized, it will take the leadership of Secretary Kerry to advance the idea that only with a hemisphere united toward democratic governance and respect for human rights can we ever achieve the security, economic and social progress that will come from providing every American — north, central and south — with access to justice and freedom from fear.