Protecting Civil Society in Latin America

On June 17, the Organization of American States (OAS) circulated a copy of the declarations and resolutions adopted by the 40th General Assembly in Lima, Peru, on June 6-8, 2010.  Advocates who work with and within multilateral organizations will agree that the final version of any declaration or resolution rarely reflects the underlying issues at stake, nor adequately describes the process of dialogue, negotiations, and lobbying that takes place before the final text is published.

For example, resolution AG/RES. 2612 (XL-O/10)—“Increasing and Strengthening the Participation of Civil Society and Social Actors in the Activities of the Organization of American States and the Summits of the Americas Process”—does not describe the plans of some OAS member states to limit the participation of civil society actors in the activities developed by the OAS.  Fortunately, these plans were diverted through the combined advocacy effort of more than 136 civil society organizations from across the hemisphere.

It all started with the draft resolution CP/CISC-502/10.rev.3 , which instructed the OAS Permanent Council and member states to promote and facilitate the participation of civil society and all social actors in the activities developed by the OAS, ¨in accordance with the domestic legislation of the member states.¨  The phrase in quotations was an addition to the resolution proposed by the Venezuelan government with strong support from Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Peru.  The proposal alarmed the Open Society Institute and our partner organizations Transparency International and members of the Inter-American Alliance for Freedom of Expression and Information.  It also concerned other civil society defenders of the right of freedom of expression, accountability, and the respect for a diversity of opinions.

The inclusion of the phrase in the resolution would have given member states the right to restrict the participation of civil society within the OAS simply through claiming that they do not comply with domestic legislation.  For example, in the case of Venezuela, civil society organizations that receive any percentage of their funding from international donors would be excluded from participating. This would include most if not all independent civil society groups.  In other countries, it could include social movements for indigenous rights whose voices should be heard, but who are not ¨legal¨ according to their governments.

Identical language had previously been incorporated into the 2001 regulation of the follow-up mechanism of the Inter-American Convention against Corruption.  The result has been the refusal of the Venezuelan government to allow the presentation by Transparency International’s Venezuelan Chapter, Transparencia Venezuela, of shadow reports on its implementation of anticorruption recommendations. Unfortunately, the OAS has upheld this ban since 2006, interpreting the regulation to mean that the Venezuelan government has the right to determine which civil society organizations have the right to participate.  This decision has set an alarming precedent for other watchdog organizations.

What would have happened if draft resolution CP/CISC-502/10.rev.3 had been adopted? Could it have left the door open for ambiguity, allowing member states to veto the participation of any civil society actor who held opposing views to those of the government?  We have already seen the evidence of this in the follow-up mechanism for the Inter-American Convention against Corruption.  Would something similar have happened with the Inter-American Human Rights System or other important OAS related entities and activities?  The hemisphere’s champions of human rights and freedom of expression shudder to think of all that could have been.

Fortunately, prior to the discussion of AG/Resolution 2612 (XL-0/10), many Open Society Institute Latin America Program partners had participated in the OAS as watchdogs for democracy, social justice, and human rights.  Although their behind-the-scenes efforts to push the General Assembly to overturn the Venezuelan proposal are not detailed in the declarations and resolutions adopted by the Assembly in June, we should commend their ability to react quickly, mobilize, and overturn the Venezuelan proposal while safeguarding the rights of citizen participation and defending the ideals of open society.

7 Comments

I like very much how you explain both the issues at stake and the joint advocacy work that was done by the group of civil society organizations around the problematic resolution.

As you point out, in the framework of another OAS forum, the follow-up mechanism to the Inter-American Convention against Corruption, Transparencia Venezuela has not yet been able to present officially its independent reports on the implementation of the Convention in Venezuela.

Last March, the follow-up committee to the Convention met at the OAS premises, and once more banned the civil society report from Transparencia Venezuela.

Have a look at the press release that TI issued, with a link to the censored report: http://www.transparency.org/news_room/latest_news/press_releases/2010/20...

Ana Revuelta
TI Americas

Thanks, Vonda.
This is an excellent example of the importance of "being there", through the sustained work that you and many other organizations carry out as watchdogs of the Inter-American system.
These sort of collective actions are the ones that safeguard our right to monitor, express opinions and participate in the building of our democracies, both at the local and international levels.
Well done!

Silvana Lauzán
Director, Democracy and HHRR Program
Centro de Derechos Humanos, Chile

Gracias Vonda, está es una parte de la historia en Lima que hace falta difundir.
Vale la pena mencionar la sintonía que sobre el tema, expresaron todas las organizaciones presentes y la comprensión del efecto negativo que tendria una limitación a la participación de la sociedad civil como la que se intentó, para la democracia en America Latina. Esta sintonía permitió alinear los esfuerzos bajo una sola bandera: "No a la Restricción".
Por otra parte, quiero señalar los países que defendieron los derechos humanos y se impusieron ante los intentos de aprobar la restricción: Canadá, Estados Unidos, Chile, Perú, Uruguay, Trinidad Tobago, Panamá, México y Colombia. Otros expresaron su apoyo en la sesión de la comisión que buscaba un acuerdo: Guatemala, El Salvador.
Lamentamos que estos intentos del gobierno de Venezuela, de limitar la participación de la sociedad civil, contara con el apoyo de Nicaragua, Bolivia, y otro smantuvieron silencio complice como la Delegación Argentina que no se manifestó en público, pero en diálogo con TI aseguró que en caso de votar lo haría a favor de la propuesta del gobierno de Venezuela.
Me gusto la calificación de watchdogs, pero hace falta cada día más coordinación, planificación para lograr el éxito.
Mercedes De Freitas

Muchas gracias por este análisis Vonda. Me gustaría sólo agregar la necesidad que existe en la región de incentivar la capacidad de incidencia de las organizaciones de la sociedad civil en estos organismos internacionales. La reflexión que me llevé de la experiencia en Lima es la influencia que podemos generar sobre la toma de decisiones cuando somos capaces de crear instancias colectivas en actividades concretas. Encontrar aliados estratégicos y observar el interés de los funcionarios internacionales por buscar la conformidad de las organizaciones que actuamos como watchdog en este espacio fue clave para condicionar las decisiones del cuerpo. Deberemos reforzar este estilo de trabajo porque nos da pequeñas victorias y como bien comentas, hay trabajo por delante. Los organismos internacionales no pueden ser legislados por el derecho interno de los estados miembros, deberemos seguir impulsando acciones para generar los cambios que fortalezcan la participación ciudadana como mecanismo de control social y manifestación de la libertad de expresión.

Karina Banfi
Secretaria Ejecutiva
Alianza Regional por la Libertad de
Expresión e Información

It was great experiencing in Lima how NGOs with very different agendas got together to strategize around one issue and seeing positive results of their advocacy efforts.

As Merchy comments, there is a need to continue coordinating these joint efforts and improve the civil society spaces at the OAS General Assembly and other OAS fora.

In December, the Conference of States Parties of the Follow-up Mechanism of the Inter-American Convention against Corruption (MESICIC) will take place in Brasil. We need to engage with those governments that have expressed publicly the added value of having active civil society organisations in order for them to change the rules of the MESICIC so that there is no veto in the monitoring of the Convention.

Aca les envio los links a los videos de 4 importantes momentos de la reunion de la OEA.

Alianza Regional por la Ley Modelo de Acceso a la Informacion
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0S695tUXcYw

No a la restricción a la participación en la OEA
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qMoHEZAEAJA

Presentación ante representantes de los Estados ante la OEA
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=diQDZhPwetM

Embajador de Chile ante la OEA
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I3qNwz19OLY

Un abrazo
Moises Sanchez
Fundacion Pro Acceso Chile

Muy buen resumen Vonda. Estuvimos expectantes e informados a través de Karina. Comparto que debemos participar más en esos ámbitos y defender una visión no restrictiva para la sociedad civil. En Uruguay estamos comenzando a conformar una red de la sociedad civil por el Derecho a la Información y creo interesante incluir estos temas sobre participación. Debemos además utilizar las redes, como la Alianza, para difundir las acciones de aquellos gobiernos que buscan restringir la participación de la sociedad civil, sobre todo porque les "molesta".

Saludos, Edison

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