The Role of the OAS and UNASUR in Mediating Inter-Regional Conflicts

March 10, 2014

Nate Singham

As a result of the recent events that have taken place in Venezuela, the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) have both called for discussions. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro would like to see the conflicts resolved within the context of UNASUR and has rejected attempts by the OAS to address the situation.

Last week, the OAS held a private meeting to consider the request of Panama to convene a Meeting of Consultation of Ministers of Foreign Affairs with regard to events in Venezuela, leading to the decision by President Maduro to break diplomatic relations with the Panamanian government.

Although the OAS meeting was held behind closed doors with no media allowed, Secretary General José Miguel Insulza made a lengthy public statement, which was posted on Thursday. Among other things, he stated, “For decades already, no single member has been able to dominate the will of the others.”

However, as was pointed out in the most recent Congressional Research Service report [PDF], historically, the OAS has acted consistently with U.S. foreign policy objectives. It’s also worth noting that the United States was the organizations largest donor, contributing nearly $65.7 million [PDF] in fiscal year 2013, which is equivalent to 41 percent of the total 2013 OAS budget. Considering these sizeable donations it would be safe to assume that the US plays a dominant role in defining the organizations foreign policy. 

The Congressional Research Service report states that:

Although OAS actions frequently reflected U.S. policy during the 20th Century, this has changed to a certain extent over the past decade as Latin American and Caribbean governments have adopted more independent foreign policies. While the organization’s goals and day-to-day activities are still generally consistent with U.S. policy toward the region, the United States’ ability to advance its policy initiatives within the OAS has declined.

Last Thursday, as the OAS debated Panama’s request to convene a meeting of foreign ministers, the U.S. released the prepared remarks from its permanent representative to the OAS Carmen Lomellin. In it, she expressed the U.S.’ support for Panama’s request, and called for a fact-finding mission from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to travel to Venezuela. Instead, the OAS issued a declaration of “Solidarity and Support for Democratic Institutions, Dialogue, and Peace” in Venezuela. Twenty-nine states approved the declaration and only Canada, Panama and the United States objected. This serves as another example of the U.S.’ growing political isolation within the hemisphere.

Newly-Found Independence in the Region and the Role of UNASUR

As the region experiences its second independence, other regional organizations have taken the lead in diffusing crises in the region. From CELAC to UNASUR, increasingly the region has chosen to address important issues without the presence of the United States.

Last month, Venezuela’s minister of foreign relations, Elías Jaua, visited several Latin American countries to inform state officials about the recent protests. An emergency foreign ministers meeting will be held in Chile following the inauguration of Michele Bachelet (who served as the first president of UNASUR during her first term as president of Chile.)

Previous UNASUR presidential emergency meetings have been reserved for extreme crises and serious threats to regional security. 

Here is a brief summary of previous emergency presidential council meetings:[i] 

September 15, 2008: Reunión Extraordinaria del Consejo de Jefas y Jefes de Estado y de Gobierno de UNASUR (Santiago de Chile)
In September of 2008, a series of riots, protests and killings were carried out by Bolivian anti-government protesters in an attempt de-stabilize the democratically elected government of Bolivia. The most severe incident occurred on September 11 in which armed opposition groups massacred 11 unarmed government supporters. Four days later, Chilean president Michelle Bachelet declared an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis. Following the meeting, 12 UNASUR governments signed the “Declaración de la Moneda.” The document condemned the acts of violence committed by the opposition and expressed full support for the Bolivian government.  

October 1, 2010: Reunión Extraordinaria del Consejo de Jefas y Jefes de Estado (Buenos Aires, Argentina)
UNASUR arranged an emergency meeting after a faction of the Ecuadorian police kidnapped president Rafael Correa as a plot to try and overthrow the government. After the meeting, UNASUR issued a public statement denouncing the coup attempt and expressing support for the Ecuadorian government.

June 27, 2012 [PDF]: Reunión Extraordinaria del Consejo de Jefas y Jefes de Estado (Mendoza, Argentina)
UNASUR formed an emergency meeting in response to the ousting of Paraguayan president Fernando Lugo. An official statement called on opposition leaders to respect democratic practices.

April 18, 2013: Reunión Extraordinaria del Consejo de Ministras y Ministros de Relaciones Exteriores de UNASUR (Lima, Peru)
This meeting was held after the most recent presidential elections in Venezuela in order to display solidarity and recognize the electoral process there.

July 4, 2013: Reunión Extraordinaria del Consejo de Ministras y Ministros de Relaciones Exteriores de UNASUR (Cochabamba, Bolivia)  
Last July several European countries closed their airspace to the presidential aircraft of Bolivian president Evo Morales, who was accused of harboring NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden. Immediately following the incident, the Latin American leaders arranged an emergency meeting in Cochabamba, Bolivia in which they described the actions as a form of neo-colonial intimidation. 

i] Since 2008, UNASUR has held ten emergency presidential meetings (five of which pertain to regional conflicts.)

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