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September 16, 2002


The Unit for the Promotion of Democracy
and The Department of External Relations
of the Organization of American States
The Center for Latin American Issues
at The George Washington University

Reflections on the First Anniversary of the Inter-American Democratic Charter

While September 11, 2001, will be remembered for the tragic terrorist attacks in the United States, it should also be remembered as the beginning of a new chapter in the commitment of the Western hemisphere to the ideals of democratic freedoms. On that date, the members of the Organization of American States (OAS) signed the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Demonstrating an extraordinary confluence of political will, the consensus achieved gave the Democratic Charter legitimacy seldom obtained by multinational agreements. The signing of the Charter reflected and institutionalized the fact that there is a collective responsibility for supporting and deepening democracy throughout the Americas.

President Toledo addresses the conference.  Seated (l. to r.): OAS Permanent Council Chairman, Amb. Roger Noriega; Secretary General Gaviria; Dean Phillips; Assistant Secretary General Luigi Einaudi, Representative to the OAS
President Toledo addresses standing-room only

On September 16, 2002, the OAS’s Office of External Relations and the Unit for the Promotion of Democracy, in conjunction with the Center for Latin American Issues at the George Washington University, hosted a conference to celebrate the first anniversary of this document. The conference, Reflections on the First Anniversary of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, brought together a group of prominent officials from several member nations of the OAS, highlighted by the comments of the Honorable Alejandro Toledo, President of the Republic of Peru.
The half-day conference was comprised of two sessions. The first featured an inaugural address by Dr. César Gaviria, Secretary General of the OAS, and the keynote speaker, President Toledo. The second session consisted of a prominent four-member panel, which discussed the significance, applicability and the potential of the Charter. The panel included: Heraldo Muñoz, Minister of Government, Chile; Eduardo Stein, President, Foundation for the Americas; Barbara McDougall, President, Canadian Institute for International Affairs; and Colin Granderson, Assistant Secretary General, Foreign and Community Relations, CARICOM Secretariat. Maria Elena Salinas, a news anchor at Univision, chaired the panel.
The mandate of the OAS for the promotion of democracy has evolved considerably over the years. While the OAS had long been criticized for its inability to react to authoritarian regimes and their often severe human rights abuses, by the end of the Cold War the political will existed to implement a long-standing commitment in support of democratic development. As the political and economic pessimism of the 1980s gave way to the optimism of the 1990s, member nations of the OAS signed into effect Resolution 1080 in Santiago, Chile. With Resolution 1080, the OAS for the first time joined its philosophy of support for democratic governance with the need for action.
The Democratic Charter represents a new era in the hemispheric commitment to democracy. A standard of international law has emerged which recognizes that democratic governance is not an aspiration but a right, one that can and must be defended. The Charter is a major achievement for several reasons. It reaffirms the American nations’ conviction to democracy and corrects some of the operational shortcomings of Resolution 1080. It recognizes that economic and social development cannot be effectively pursued in the absence of political freedoms. Most importantly, in a marked departure from the past, the Charter calls on member states of the OAS to act collectively, as a binding obligation rather than vague moral duty, to combat threats to democracy.
The Democratic Charter comes at an especially important time. Recent indicators suggest that general support for democracy has fallen in Latin America in the past couple of years. According to Latinobarómetro, 60% of Latin Americans are dissatisfied with democracy, while only 27% advocate it. This level of support is lower than in Europe, Africa or Asia. Many equate economic problems with democratic problems, and the failure of economic policies is perceived to be a breakdown of democracy itself. Along with economic crisis, globalization puts other pressures on governments. As people see efforts and evidence of improving social justice in other nations, they wonder why their nation does not measure up. Some of the greatest challenges to democracy, noted President Toledo, come from the less favored in society, who feel excluded from the political process. “Poverty conspires against democracy,” especially when the poor cannot find institutional channels to have their demands met. Other threats to democracy noted by Maria Elena Salinas include illiteracy and corruption.
The Democratic Charter focuses on three interrelated means to encourage democratic development. The first is to actively promote democracy in all member states of the OAS. This duty is an essential element of the Charter, perhaps its most important provision. Supporting the development of democratic institutions, such as strong political party systems and parliaments, as well as citizen participation, is critical to deepening and broadening democracy in the hemisphere.
Second, the Democratic Charter seeks to develop methods to prevent undemocratic practices, in part by promoting cooperation among governments and non-governmental organizations. As importantly, the Charter provides a basis from which to develop a warning mechanism. As the Charter evolves, it will go further with mediation and conciliation efforts, an area in which the OAS Unit for the Promotion of Democracy has experience. Heraldo Muñoz stated that while this mechanism exists informally at the moment, it might be formalized in the future. In addition, he noted that the OAS would most likely play only a partial role in an early warning system; the press and such groups as Transparency International may be more effective in this role.
Finally, the Democratic Charter discusses actions for the OAS to take in defense of democratic regimes. If there is an unconstitutional disruption in the democratic order, the OAS will pursue diplomatic initiatives in an attempt to restore the democratic order. In case this fails, a member state can be suspended from the OAS. Muñoz commented that, in the future, the OAS response to disruptions in the democratic order might go even further.

Elizabeth Spehar, Executive Coordinator of the OAS, Unit for the Promotion of Democracy, addresses the audience

The distinguished panelists (l. to r.):  Barbara McDougall, President, Canadian Institute for International Affairs; Heraldo Muñoz, Minister of Government, Chile; Maria Elena Salinas, News Anchor, Univision (moderator); Eduardo Stein, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Guatemala; Colin Granderson, Assistant Secretary General, Foreign and Community Relations, CARICOM Secretariat

Some have criticized the Democratic Charter for being too imprecise, because it provides no clear universally-applicable definition of democracy. This imprecision is intentional. Rather than providing a list of indications of when the Charter should be invoked, it is instead dynamically conceived, focusing on processes of democracy rather than on specific actions, noted Eduardo Stein. This factor is one of the most significant improvements of the Charter over Resolution 1080. The latter provided a legal basis for the OAS to take steps in response to very specific anti-democratic actions, such as the 1992 autogolpe in Peru. However, that same document left OAS member nations’ hands tied as Fujimori moved slowly and steadily to dismantle the critical components of democracy by buying important media outlets and by changing laws to gain control over the judiciary and legislative systems, even as he maintained the formalities of democratic procedure. Barbara McDougall asserted that the Charter is a living document because democracy is a culture that is lived and learned, not a strict set of rules.
Others worry about intervention per se, concerned that it may lead to coercive actions, especially by the United States. Stein recognized this concern, and noted that it exists both because of history and because of the unfolding of current international dynamics. The response to these concerns is not to avoid our obligation to support democratic development; on the contrary, it demands the Democratic Charter’s emphasis on collective responsibilities and processes.
Other complex challenges to democratic institutions are cynicism and apathy. As moderator, Salinas asked the provocative question: How do we motivate people to participate in democratic processes when there is a lack of credible government? This is a fundamental issue, and one of the goals of the Democratic Charter is to help governments develop credibility by working with the express recognition from their neighbors that they meet the basic criteria of democratic governance. At the same time, McDougall noted that the role of bodies such as the OAS is necessarily limited. The encouragement of the international community is critical for democratic development, but it must be accompanied by internal action by governments, non-governmental organizations and individuals. Only with all of these components working together can we hope to make progress toward more complete democracies, and ultimately to economic and social development.
To view the symposium program schedule, click here
To view The Honorable Barbara McDougall’s remarks, click here
To view Mr. Eduardo Stein’s notes, click here

All photos courtesy of OAS