The Organization of American States

  On April 30, 1948, twenty Latin American republics and the United States of America signed the Charter establishing the OAS in Bogotá, Colombia. In that Charter, the American states enshrined "the international organization that they have developed 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." Today, nearly fifty years later, all 35 sovereign states of the Americas are members of the OAS. As they gained independence, the English-speaking countries of the Caribbean joined the Organization which, in its totality, represents the Hemisphere's rich diversity.

The roots of the OAS go far beyond the Bogotá Charter. In fact, the Organization of American States is an offshoot of the Pan-American movement dating back to the 1820's. The original idea of creating an association of states in the Americas was the initiative of Simón Bolívar, the Liberator of northern South America, who convened the Congress of Panama in 1826. Bolívar's ideal projected itself over time and, on April 14, 1890, the First International Conference of American States established the International Union of American Republics and its secretariat, the Commercial Bureau of the American Republics, forerunner of the OAS which, in 1910, became the Pan American Union.

During the intervening years between the establishment of the Pan American Union and that of the OAS, American international law underwent an extraordinary development. The American states molded such principles as non-intervention, the juridical equality of states, and the peaceful settlement of disputes which were later incorporated into the Charter and which continue to guide the activities of the Organization. The increasing interest in hemispheric issues at that time led to the establishment of various specialized organizations which currently respond to the interests of the various American nations in their respective fields of endeavor: the Pan American Health Organization (1902); the Inter- American Children's Institute (1924); the Inter-American Commission of Women (1928); the Pan American Institute of Geography and History (1928); the Inter-American Indian Institute (1940); and the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (1942).

In August 1961, the Inter-American Economic and Social Council issued the Declaration of Punta del Este in Uruguay and adopted the Charter of Punta del Este which gave rise to the Alliance for Progress, an ambitious cooperative program among all countries of the Hemisphere, aimed at strengthening representative democracy and achieving rapid economic progress and greater social justice. A significant part of this multilateral effort was carried out through the OAS whose technical cooperation programs were expanded and strengthened during the Alliance.

The American Convention on Human Rights which was signed in 1969 and entered into force in 1978, established the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, headquartered in San José, Costa Rica. With the Court entering into operation, the legal structure of the inter-American human rights system was thereby completed.

In the face of the growing drug problem, in 1986 the General Assembly established the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD), charging it with a mandate to promote and facilitate close cooperation among member states in controlling illegal drug use and production and drug trafficking.

In response to the entrenchment of democracy in the American nations, the OAS has been intensifying its efforts to promote and consolidate representative democracy since the 1980s. Since 1989, OAS election observation missions, formed at the specific request of the respective member state, have contributed to transparency in numerous elections in various countries of the Hemisphere.

In June 1991 the General Assembly issued the "Santiago Commitment to Democracy and the Renewal of the Inter-American System" in which member states reiterated their all-out support to democracy as a system of government, and adopted resolution 1080 "Representative Democracy" which establishes a procedure for defending democracy where its exercise has been interrupted. This procedure has been invoked on three occasions in response to events that took place in Haiti (1991), Peru (1992), and Guatemala (1993).

Over the last few years the OAS has also placed greater focus on the areas of trade and the environment. In the area of trade, a computerized foreign trade information system has been put in place and in 1993, the Special Committee on Trade was established to enhance the liberalization of trade among the countries of the Hemisphere. On the subject of sustainable development, in 1991 the General Assembly adopted the Inter-American Program of Action for Environmental Protection.

The OAS has made a significant effort in the area of the development and codification of international law, with its organs adopting over one hundred conventions regulating numerous aspects of public and private international law.

Over time, not only have OAS activities evolved; its basic instrument, the Charter, has evolved as well. In 1967, the Charter was amended by the Protocol of Buenos Aires which changed the structure of the Organization and incorporated new provisions in the economic, social, educational, scientific, and cultural areas. In 1985, the Protocol of Cartagena incorporated into the Charter the promotion and consolidation of representative democracy based on respect for the principle of non-intervention as an essential purpose of the OAS; it strengthened the powers of the Permanent Council and the Secretary General; and it returned to member states the power to decide on requests for admission to the OAS.

The Protocol of Washington, which was adopted in 1992, established that a member state of the Organization whose democratically-constituted government has been overthrown by force, may have its right to participate in the councils of the Organization suspended. That Protocol also established the eradication of poverty as one of the basic objectives of the Organization. In 1993, the Protocol of Managua created the Inter-American Council for Integral Development (CIDI) whose purpose is to promote cooperation among the American states so that they may attain integral development and, especially, to contribute to the elimination of critical poverty. Member states are in the process of ratifying the Protocol of Washington. The Protocol of Managua entered into force on January 29, 1996.

The Heads of State and Government of the Hemisphere met on three occasions. These summit meetings have had a significant impact on the OAS which has been given policy guidelines at the highest level of government. The first of these meetings, held in Panama in 1956, gave rise to initiatives leading to the creation of the OAS Fellowships Program and a technical cooperation program that included advisory services to the governments as well as the promotion of projects that could be presented to international lending institutions. The Panama spirit also led to the establishment of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) by the OAS in 1959. The heads of state met again in Punta del Este in 1967. There, the idea of creating the OAS regional educational, scientific and technological, and cultural development programs was launched. At the Punta del Este meeting, the presidents gave their firm support to regional integration, one of the objectives of the inter-American system.

The Summit of the Americas held in Miami in December 1994 brought together, for the first time, democratically-elected heads of state and government of the American nations. The leaders declared that "the strengthening, effective exercise and consolidation of democracy constitute the central political priority of the Americas. The Organization of American States (OAS) is the principal hemispheric body for the defense of democratic values and institutions." The leaders also noted that the OAS had a particularly important role to play in supporting the strengthening of democracy; the promotion and protection of human rights; the struggle against corruption; efforts to eliminate the threat of national and international terrorism; efforts to foster mutual confidence; free trade in the Americas; and telecommunications and information infrastructure. The Plan of Action of the Miami Summit also projects other roles for the OAS in the following areas: promoting cultural values; combatting the problem of illicit drugs and related crimes; cooperation in science and technology; strengthening the role of women in society; and partnership for pollution prevention.

The basic purposes of the OAS are as follows:

The Miami Summit entrusted the OAS with a new and more relevant agenda which defines the parameters for the process of change in the Organization as sought by the countries and charted by its current Secretary General, César Gaviria. This change seeks to make the Organization a more effective instrument serving the community of democratic nations in the ranks of its membership.

In their Declaration of Principles and in their Plan of Action, the thirty four leaders of the democratic nations of the Hemisphere agreed to establish the Free Trade Area of the Americas, in which barriers to trade and investment will be progressively eliminated. They also agreed to preserve and strengthen the Community of Democracies of the Americas, to eradicate poverty and discrimination in the Hemisphere, and to guarantee sustainable development and conserve our natural environment for future generations.

The Plan of Action indicates that the OAS will have a paramount role in following-up on the various decisions of the Summit, and particularly those aimed at: strengthening democracy, promoting and protecting human rights, combating corruption, eliminating the threat of national and international terrorism, building mutual confidence, free trade in the Americas, telecommunications and information infrastructure, promoting cultural value, combating the problem of illegal drugs and related crimes, cooperation in Science and Technology, strengthening the role of women in society, and establishing a partnership for pollution prevention.