COMMENTARY: Strongman-ism in the House of the Americas

Sir Ron Sanders

By Sir Ronald Sanders

(The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the Organisation of American States.  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.   The views expressed are his own)

In one year and eight months’ time the present holder of the Office of Secretary-General of the Organisation of American States (OAS) will end his current term.  Judging from his recent utterances, Luis Almagro, might not offer himself for a second term although he has not said so specifically.

In his most recent statement on October 9, he talked about his task “in the one year and eight months I have left as SG”, and on September 16, in remarks published on the OAS website, he made it clear that he is not “so attached to the position of Secretary-General”. 

It could be, of course, that Mr Almagro’s remarks are setting the stage for influential members of the 34-nation body to urge him to remain and, thus, strengthen the approach he has brought to the job.  That approach is one of complete separation and little or no accountability to the permanent council which comprises representatives of the member-states.  

In Secretary-General Almagro’s interpretation, “The OAS is many different things”.   He sees one “vested interest” as “the Permanent Council, which houses the permanent representatives of the 35 Member States”. Another “vested interest” is, “the General Secretariat, which I have the privilege of leading”. 

This idea of two separate houses in the OAS, one of which he is sole master, undoubtedly accounts for Mr Almagro’s individualistic, almost headstrong, conduct as Secretary-General with little regard to any need for direction – or even agreement – by the Permanent Council.

Yet the OAS Charter is clear about the powers of the Permanent Council and of the General Secretariat to carry out duties assigned to it by the council.    The Charter states that “The Permanent Council shall:   Watch over the observance of the standards governing the operation of the General Secretariat and, when the General Assembly is not in session, adopt provisions of a regulatory nature that enable the General Secretariat to carry out its administrative functions”.   It also states that “The General Secretariat shall carry out the duties entrusted to it by the General Assembly, the Meeting of Consultation of Ministers of Foreign Affairs, or the Councils”.

It is inconceivable that the government representatives, who drafted the Charter, envisaged a Secretary-General who operates independently of the Permanent Council or who sees the organisation as consisting of separate compartments with “vested interests”, leaving the Secretary-General to formulate and execute policy separately and without accountability to the governments of the member-states.   Yet, this is precisely the current condition of the OAS.

Mr Almagro is a man of strong convictions and I have no doubt that, in his mind, his actions are justified and justifiable.   In the context of the countries of Latin America (not the Caribbean), Mr Almagro regards himself as a medieval white-knight charging on a robust steed, lance in hand, to cut down all evil as he perceives it.  It is this hubris that drives him and is captured in his own statement: “I will continue if necessary for years, as SG or not, and if necessary alone.  If you insist on putting me into a pigeon hole, let it be the stubborn one who sided with the principles of democracy and human rights”. 

In portraying himself in this way, of course, Mr Almagro not only exposes that he has a one-dimensional view of his job, he also suggests that he alone is siding “with the principles of democracy and human rights”, ignoring that there are many member-states of the OAS – the majority in the Caribbean – who have consistently upheld democracy and human rights and jealously safeguard them.  

It is this hubris that may have caused him to feel that he has no reason, as Secretary-General, to take counsel from, to consult with, or seek the collaboration of the Permanent Council of the OAS for the public positions he takes and for the statements he makes.   In his zest “never to fit into a conventional diplomacy or the traditional international relations community pigeon hole”, as he puts it, he overlooks the essential reality that his role as Secretary-General is not to be the maverick he describes, but to be an essential cog in the wheel of a inter-governmental organisation that must be an honest broker in disputes; a healer of wounds; and a worker for sustainable peace and progress.   The latter only comes with careful and steady diplomatic work.  A torch that is lit brings light but, used improperly, it also brings destruction.  

None of this is to say that the Secretary-General should remain silent in the face of crass violations of the Charters of the OAS, particularly the Inter-American Democratic Charter, nor does it suggest that the Secretary-General ought not to propose action that should be taken to safeguard democracy and human rights.  However, the actions and statements of the Secretary-General should not be so unchecked and unbounded, that it disqualifies the organisation from carrying out any role in the very situations about which he is concerned.  

However, that is precisely what Mr Almagro has succeeded in doing.  The sense of balance, so important to the credibility and functioning of an inter-governmental organisation in promoting solutions, has been plucked from the hands of the OAS.  In this, regrettably, he has had tacit support from a few countries whose present objectives it suits.  But, these countries may yet come to regret the precedent they’ve set.

Mr Almagro is perfectly right in his latest statement, made at St Antony’s College, Oxford on October 9 that “Democracy does not happen by default. Human rights either.  It requires hard work”.  

That “hard work” is the business of diplomacy; of knitting-together a quilt of consensus for international action that never closes the door to encouraging dialogue even as it makes clear that graduated measures will be taken to express displeasure and to cause undemocratic practices to be reversed and human rights violations to end in any country in which they occur.  

That is the “hard work” of governments that are involved together and resolved together.  The Secretary-General’s role is to help build such inter-governmental action, and not to centre it in personal terms. And, therein, is the quandary that the OAS faces.

“Strong-manism” abounds on many sides.

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10 October 2018

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