The Organization of American States or known as OAS on Abbreviationfinder, was founded after World War II with the main purpose of working for peace and preventing conflicts between the countries of the Western Hemisphere. Today, work for democracy, human rights and economic development are important elements. All 35 independent states in North and South America are members of the OAS, even if Cuba does not participate in the work.
According to the OAS charter, a representative democratic system is a prerequisite for the states to be able to cooperate and achieve the organization’s goals. Despite this, the number of dictatorships in Latin America increased during the 1950’s and 1960’s. The OAS overlooked many crimes against democracy, especially in the late 1960’s and for most of the 1970’s, including the systematic human rights violations by the Chilean and Argentine military regimes.
During the 1970’s, authoritarian regimes came under intense pressure, both nationally and internationally, as a result of a growing awareness of human rights. During the 1980’s, a wave of democratization swept across Latin America, and now all Member States except Cuba have more or less democratically elected governments. However, many democracies are weak with economic and social problems, inadequate legal systems, restrictions on freedom of the press and populations that distrust politicians.
OAS was long considered an organization that spoke warmly about democracy and human rights, without in practice being able to prevent the abuses that were going on in several countries. During the 1990’s, however, several steps were taken towards better protection of democracy. In 1990, the Special Unit for the Promotion of Democracy was established to assist member states with election observation and the building of democratic institutions. One year later, in Santiago, the Member States adopted a resolution (1080) to collectively defend democracy in countries where it is threatened. Previously, democracy work had mostly been about influence through words. With the agreement in Santiago, OAS was given the opportunity to act, even with the help of coercive measures such as sanctions.
OAS soon showed evidence of new action. When the Haitian military ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991, the OAS imposed economic and diplomatic sanctions and sent a group of mediators to the country. When the military still refused to relinquish power, the OAS called on the UN to act. A joint OAS / UN group was sent to Haiti, but it was not until October 1994 that OAS economic sanctions and US pressure led the military regime to return power to President Aristide.
In Guatemala, President Jorge Serrano tried to carry out a coup in 1993. The OAS Foreign Ministers’ Council was convened immediately, while the Secretary-General and a group of observers were sent to Guatemala. OAS warnings contributed to the emergence of a strong opposition, the army turned its back on Serrano and he was forced to flee the country.
The third US summit, held in Quebec in 2001, gave the OAS a mandate to formulate a US charter of democracy. This was adopted in Lima on 11 September of the same year and defines what democracy is and how American countries should defend democracy when it is in danger, for example in the event of coups or the dissolution of parliament. The country that does not follow the democratic rules of the game can be excluded from all cooperation within OAS.
Already in April 2002, the democracy charter was put to the test. Then Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was deposed in a coup. The OAS condemned the coup, then-Secretary-General César Gaviria went to Venezuela and the continent’s foreign ministers were summoned to an extra meeting. When the new president, who had dissolved Parliament and the Supreme Court, felt the massive national and international criticism, he reinstated Parliament and the Supreme Court. And soon Chávez was back in power.
In 2002, the OAS Permanent Council also sent a delegation to Haiti, which was in deep crisis. President Aristide had cheated himself to victory in an election in 2000 and the country was now marked by violence and lawlessness. The IACHR Commission on Human Rights (see Structure) was also asked to visit the country to report on the current situation and act as an adviser. But when opponents of President Aristide launched violent protests in early 2004, the OAS failed in all attempts to mediate between the ruling party and the opposition. The unrest eventually forced Aristide to flee, after which the OAS demanded a speedy return to democracy.
In the past, the OAS only intervened when a conflict had already arisen. In recent years, the importance of preventive measures has been understood and an evaluation of how the new democracy charter has been used for this purpose is planned. To avoid the disintegration of democracy, it seeks to address underlying problems such as poverty, underdevelopment and weak political and legal systems. In addition to this, election monitoring has become increasingly important. Every year, OAS monitors several elections at different levels.