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.