On a cold, mid-March morning, in the midst of what has been a long winter— both for Washington D.C. and the Organization of American States (OAS)— the Honduran representative proposed that member states elect by acclamation Luis Almagro, the only candidate running for the organization’s General Secretary. However, Jamaica requested that members conduct the election via secret ballot, which then garnered support from other Caribbean countries. Member states voted and the singular candidate was elected with 33 votes in favor and one abstention.
This scenario exemplifies much of what currently occurs in the OAS. No longer do the region’s most prominent figures compete head to head for the honor of representing the world’s oldest interstate organization. It also shows the region’s internal divisions make it almost impossible to arrive at consensus.
Almagro has not even finished settling in and has already incited controversy. Criticism has come from “insiders.” According to the Panamanian ex-Ambassador for the OAS Guillermo Cochez, the Almagro’s program is unfocused, vague, and not feasible. Santiago Canton, ex-Executive Secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, has made similar critiques to the lack of specificity in Almagro’s proposals.
Almagro himself has opened himself up to criticism. When consulted about how he saw the unfolding crisis in Venezuela, the candidate set to run the OAS highlighted the role that Unasur should play. It looks as if he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Even so, many voices correctly point out that it is still much too early to evaluate his management. Almagro brings with him not only extensive diplomatic experience, but also the backing of a country that seems small, but has shown boldness and expertise in international negotiations.
Critics and defenders agree on two topics: the OAS should prioritize human rights and democracy in its work. This requires the difficult balancing act between technical verification and promotion of political dialogue. Precisely what the situations in Mexico and Venezuela need.
On the two fronts Almagro faces huge tasks. Political dialogue is not in its best moment. South American states have sought out other diplomatic alternatives to discuss what before was negotiated in the OAS. But they are not the only ones. Currently there are three big countries that do not have permanent representatives in the organization: the United States, with its ambassador having recently retired and Congress stalling the process of confirming her replacement, Canada, and Brazil. The last has gone several years without naming an ambassador.
On the side of technical mechanisms Almagro also starts with challenges. The first and most important is that the principal human rights bodies, the Commission and the Court, will have decisive elections that will likely change their composition radically. However the elections are up in the air as Haiti forfeited its responsibility to host this year’s General Assembly due to lack of funds and no one knows what to do. The assembly should be done in Washington, but there is no available money to pay for it.
In general there is a lack of money. Important countries are behind on their dues, like the United States (again, due to disputes betwen Congress and the Obama administration), and Brazil, which is counting coins in order to pay its international commitments. Others who typically contribute more than their share— at least for human rights matters— like Colombia and Mexico, have already announced that this year they will not.
Moreover, Almagro will need to have the mettle to back the human rights bodies and avoid that governments attempt to undermine them as it happened a couple years ago in a crusade initiated by Brazil, but led by Ecuador and Venezuela. Even if Venezuela and Brazil now have enough internal problems so as to make improbable a similar situation from occurring, Mexico’s recent position should not go unnoticed.
Two high-level diplomatic representatives have come out to vehemently discredit the report presented by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and warned that he will not be allowed to return to the country. One can expect an even angrier reaction following the conclusions of the CIDH’s planned visit to Mexico this year, the report of the expert group that will assist in the case of the 43 students disappeared in Ayotxinapa, or the eventual inclusion of Mexico in the chapter of the bad kids of human rights which in the past has generated strong reactions from governments like Venezuela and Nicaragua.
Almagro has proposed a system for the prevention of hemispheric conflicts. It would be wise to include in this system conflicts between member states and human rights bodies. This way the Inter-American system could avoid that members thrust a new reform process like the one produced by the interim measure for Belo Monte in Brazil. And it would also prevent that Mexico, one of the most prominent defenders of the human rights system only two years ago, end up today becoming its executioner.
*Nelson Camilo Sánchez is is a researcher at The Center for Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia).