OAS: an alliance in need of rescue

The inter-American system is on the verge of collapse. The Organization of American States (OAS) and some of the related institutions which provide the backbone of this system have badly deteriorated in recent years. Never since the signing of the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (Rio Treaty) and the founding of the OAS in the late 1940s have the means for collective security and mediation of disputes been so weak and ineffective. The inter-American system's demise would threaten the interests of all our countries.

The OAS has become increasingly separated from the hemisphere's major issues. It has been relegated to the sidelines in the search for solutions to Central America's problems. It was not consulted concerning the intervention in Grenada in October 1983. It went unheeded at the time of the war between Argentina and the United Kingdom in 1982.

And yet, the OAS can work. Its recent decline has obscured its very real accomplishments. The OAS once served as a model for other parts of the third world with similar regional organizations. Discussions within the OAS in the 1940s and 1950s contributed to the foundation of the Inter-American Development Bank, the first of several banks for different regions of the world that have helped to promote development.

I am a personal witness to many instances of successful OAS activity. I served as secretary-general of the OAS in 1969 when war broke out between Honduras and El Salvador. That was the most serious outbreak of war between two member states since the organization's foundation. The OAS played a decisive role to end the fighting, to monitor the cease-fire, and, in later years, to build an enduring peace.

Why did the OAS work in these and other cases and why does it have such difficulty now? The successes of the OAS were made possible by a widespread consensus that the OAS and its related institutions could function effectively with the strong backing of the hemisphere's governments.

The inter-American system's central problem today is that the member governments no longer seem interested in making it work.

We must reverse this dismal trend. My colleagues in the Inter-American Dialogue, and I personally, appeal to all governments to support the OAS once again. Brazil has already signaled its own rededication to the inter-American system by putting forth the candidacy of Joao Clemente Baena Soares for secretary-general of the OAS. His election in March creates a fresh opportunity to revitalize the organization.

The US government should follow suit. Some of the more clairvoyant US policies toward Latin America have come in bad times: Franklin Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy, John Kennedy's Alliance for Progress and, more recently, Ronald Reagan's Caribbean Basin Initiative. The US government should now take additional steps to support the inter-American system. Other governments of the hemisphere should do the same.

We need to strengthen the authority of the OAS secretary-general so that it is at least comparable to that of the UN Secretary-General.

The OAS has seen many distinguished ambassadors, some of whom still serve it well. Speaking frankly, however, governments have at times not appointed their best diplomats to the organization. Governments can signal their rededication to the OAS by appointing only high caliber personnel to represent them there.

All governments must observe the inter-American system's norms. Unilateral efforts by one government to overthrow another are politically and legally wrong. Especially with regard to Central America, all governments must stop subverting the governments they dislike, subverting thereby the inter-American system as well.

It is sometimes difficult to see that the national interest can best be served through collective rather than merely unilateral actions. But it can and has been done. It is the task of statesmen today to move away from the path to disaster on which we seem to be embarked, economically throughout the hemisphere and militarily in Central America. We must use again the valuable inter-American institutions our countries have built during the past four decades.

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