14th Anniversary of the Inter-American Democratic Charter

Interim Permanent Representative of the United States Michael J. Fitzpatrick.
Interim Permanent Representative of the United States Michael J. Fitzpatrick.

On September 17, 2015, Interim Permanent Representative of the United States Michael J. Fitzpatrick addressed a meeting of the OAS Committee on Juridical and Political Affairs to commemorate the 14th anniversary of the Inter-American Democratic Charter.

Thank you and congratulations, Mr. Chair, for convening today’s meeting.

First, the United States joins all assembled in expressing our solidarity in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami affecting Chile today.

The United States wishes to express its appreciation and respect for the presentations we have heard this afternoon on this all too important instrument, the Inter-American Democratic Charter.  In particular, we wish to thank Serena Joseph-Harris not only for her personal presence with us and her presentation today, but for her many years of committed efforts to assure — if I may use the words of our Secretary General — “more rights for more people.”

On behalf of the U.S Government, I am honored to support the proposal by the esteemed Permanent Representative of Antigua and Barbuda recognizing the role and good works of President Carter.  Indeed, we also wish to salute Dr. Jennie Lincoln of the Carter Center for being here today and for the Center’s longstanding efforts on behalf of democracy and human rights in the Americas.  President Carter’s advocacy for these ideals throughout his public life, and his vision in helping shape the Democratic Charter deserve our profound gratitude.  We wish him renewed faith in this cause, and continued courage in his personal battle against cancer.

Mr. Chair, fourteen years ago in Lima, our nations agreed, freely and without reservation — and I quote — that “the peoples of the Americas have a right to democracy and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it.”

The American community of nations was then intent on firmly closing the door on, and celebrating the demise of, a troubled era in much of our region: that of jack-booted military dictatorships, whether led by officers in uniform or by their civilian partners who used them to enforce their rule.  Nowadays, however, our democratic challenges are not so obvious.  Today’s autocrats are typically more subtle; and the strains on our democratic fabric are at times no less serious, but all-the-more complex.

The Charter’s command “to promote and defend” democracy neither begins nor ends at the ballot box. All societies must deal with the threats of violence, corruption, desperation and extremism. And our best answer — then and now — is to put forward a broad, positive agenda that offers rights, freedoms, security, justice, social inclusion and economic progress for all our peoples.  The landmark Democratic Charter emphasizes the essential link between democracy and social and economic development, as means to move our nations from democratic governments to democratic societies.

Many nations in the Americas have made remarkable progress in giving life to the principles enshrined in the Charter. Strengthened democratic institutions have broadened economic opportunity, widened the space available for civic expression and participation, reduced poverty, and better served the basic needs of citizens. Democratic, inclusive development is delivering results for people across our hemisphere.

Unfortunately, these successes do not tell the whole story. Our progress together is unmistakable, but it is also incomplete and uneven. As we celebrate our hemisphere’s unprecedented embrace of democracy, we must also renew our shared commitment to do more to deepen and defend it – and we must forge a common path forward that empowers us to do so together.

All of our countries know that the work of democracy is never done. When we stop working to perfect and protect it, democracy erodes. We know that even democratically-elected governments can threaten democracy, if they do not respect its safeguards, institutions, rules, and values.

In today’s world, even the most blatantly undemocratic governments feel the need to hold periodic elections to reaffirm their legitimacy.  The ballot box is always necessary, but never sufficient — no matter how many times a regime holds elections, and no matter how great the margin of victory.

Indeed, sometimes the frequency of elections, or the lopsided results obtained, can serve as warning signs, indicators of the lies upon which a regime is built and maintained.  Bashar al-Assad of Syria won a 2007 presidential referendum with 97.62 percent of the vote.  President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan actually publicly apologized earlier this year when he won yet another re-election with 97 percent of the vote.  But then of course there are the members of the “99 Percent Club” — and they don’t even apologize for it — including elections for Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Castros in Cuba and Kim Jong Il in North Korea.

When opposition leaders face politicized prosecutions and are thrown into military prisons, media outlets are intimidated into silence, and civil society organizations outlawed — that undermines democracy before a single vote is cast.

And regardless of how many times a nation has held presidential elections, parliamentary elections, regional elections, municipal elections and national referenda, when those elections are not open to transparent domestic and international observation, or when human rights activists and journalists are threatened for their reports — that makes all citizens less secure.

When independent institutions of government are weakened, when judges are confined to house arrest for handing down decisions that displease those in power — that denies citizens the full benefits of the governments they have chosen.

And when economic inequality, corruption and criminal violence go unchecked, day by day — that too undermines citizens’ faith that democracy can deliver for them.

And, when we, as an organization, refuse time and again to even consider the most important issues of the day — that crushes the confidence of our peoples in the inter-American system that was designed to serve them, to protect THEIR interests, not those of persons or parties currently enjoying power.

Democratic principles threatened anywhere are a challenge for democracies everywhere. None of our nations has been perfect — how could they be, as constructs of men and women? But all of us must speak out, stand firm and act with the clarity of our convictions in defense of democratic principles. If we at the OAS — an institution founded on democratic principles — do not speak out, who will?

We continue to witness political violence, attacks on and arrests of peaceful protesters, increasing restrictions on civil society, disregard for the freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and limits on judicial independence since all of us signed the Democratic Charter 14 years ago.

The OAS is the right forum to discuss these matters; the Democratic Charter is our guide.  My government claims no special moral standing to criticize, but my government does have the right and the obligation, as does every other OAS member state, to defend and support the principles reflected in international law.

From the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the groundbreaking work of this organization — from Resolution 1080 in 1991to the Inter-American Democratic Charter in 2001 — no one can argue that any government has the sovereign right to deny its citizens enjoyment of basic human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Our Democratic Charter provides the framework and the tools to defend and advance these principles together. All member states need to match rhetorical commitments to democracy with concrete support, including enhanced financial support, to the OAS — including for its peer review mechanisms, election observation missions, and the independent Inter-American human rights system.

Mr. Chair, recently we have seen bold steps taken by certain member states to strengthen their democracies by rooting out corruption and corrupt practices that have been allowed to continue with impunity for far too long.  And we have seen peaceful popular protests committed to democracy, governmental transparency and the rule of law.

The United States applauds these efforts.  Corruption is a direct threat to democracy, rotting democratic institutions and society’s confidence in them from within.

A judiciary subservient to the executive, restrictions on fundamental freedoms, like freedom of the press and freedom of expression, and a civil society that lives in fear of government retaliation or abolishment are corruption’s best friend.

The Democratic Charter and the Inter-American Convention against Corruption, two of this Organization’s landmark achievements, make this abundantly clear.

Mr. Chair, we know that every nation will follow its own path. All — including my own — have our imperfections. We promote democracy, as the Charter says, “with due respect for the principle of nonintervention.” And we approach our relations with the humility that comes from knowing that all nations, without exception, stand to learn from each other. But we also know— as agreed 14 years ago in Lima — “there is no substitute for democracy.”  This means holding our governments — all of our governments, not just some — to these principles not only when it is convenient or when no one is paying attention, but also when it is difficult and when it is necessary.

It is the Hemisphere’s own success stories that prove that democracies can and do redress historic wrongs, and that development and democracy go hand in hand. It is the very success of many OAS member states that proves that this region’s commitment to democracy — nuestra solidaridad democrática — does not undermine sovereignty. In fact, it sustains it.

Today, we are rightly proud of these accomplishments. But our progress is not guaranteed. We must continue to find new ways to translate our common vision into common action. We must exhibit the courage of our convictions and put purpose behind these principles.

As we celebrate our past, let us recommit ourselves at the OAS to build a future that delivers democracy, development and dignity to all the people of these Americas.

Thank you, Mr. Chair.