Congressman Engel Addresses the OAS Permanent Council

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs addresses the Permanent Council.
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs addresses the Permanent Council.

In his remarks, Rep. Engel, Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs addressed: “The Need For Greater Hemispheric Unity on Shared Hemispheric Goals and the Importance of the OAS.” (March 28, 2012)

Thank you Ambassador Brutus, Permanent Representatives, Assistant Secretary General Ramdin, Legislators from Suriname, Canada and Honduras, Permanent Observers, Ladies and Gentlemen.

Thank you very much for inviting me today to address the OAS Permanent Council.  It is indeed an honor for me to do so.  It is an honor to be with you and to discuss what I see are a few key issues facing the hemisphere and its leaders leading in to next month’s Summit of the Americas.

To the legislators who are visiting here, welcome to Washington.  We’ve had wonderful weather this winter and today is certainly no exception.

As you may be aware, I am the Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere of the United States House of Representatives.  I am a longstanding Senior Member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and until this Congress I was the Subcommittee’s Chairman for four years. We had a little change in the House in terms of which party controls, so I’m no longer Chairman but I’m still the Ranking Member.

As Chairman, there were several principal themes which underlay my agenda, but today, I would like to emphasize just two of them: The Need For Greater Hemispheric Unity on Shared Hemispheric Goals and the Importance of the OAS.

And, the Summit of the Americas is the ideal forum for the region’s leaders to come together and advance a shared approach to the vision of democracy, prosperity, and security which we all have in common.

I think it’s clear that while we all represent individual countries with rights to set forth our own policies and objectives, in many cases our strength is in our diversity.

I come from New York City, and there I know what diversity means.

We can do many things as individual sovereign nations for ourselves and to help our neighbors as well. But, when we band together, we are stronger than the simple sum of our numbers.

I am very positive about the OAS. I always have been and will continue to be so. No organization is perfect, but I believe that this organization is the best hope for us to make this hemisphere better and to enhance our cooperation so that the lives of all of our peoples can be improved.

Haiti as Example of Regional Cooperation

I think no single instance shows more clearly that when we band together we’re stronger than the simple sum of our numbers than our joint efforts to help Haiti.

Our hemispheric relief and recovery endeavor after the tragic earthquake showed that when we all work together, we can accomplish a great deal.

As a Congressman from the United States, I never took more pride in my nation than when U.S. military personnel were on the ground in Haiti hours and days after the earthquake saving lives and providing medical care to tens of thousands of people.

And, I know similar stories of pride ring true for many of the countries represented in this room today, including Brazil which led the MINUSTAH forces to the many other countries in this hemisphere which contributed troops. And countries outside this hemisphere as well.  Israel certainly comes to mind.

But, we have all contributed more than our militaries.

By of the end of last year, the United States had committed over $3.1 billion toward Haitian relief, recovery and reconstruction, of which $2.2 billion has already been provided to help the Haitian people.

Your countries, too, have been generous in their support of the Haitian people, and for that I express my gratitude to all of your nations and to your people.

We still have a lot of work to do in Haiti, but we can best do it when we work together.

Ambassador Brutus, I don’t think I’m taking any liberties when I say that the United States and all of our neighbors in the hemisphere stand united in the continuing effort to help Haiti rebuild from the terrible earthquake.

But on Support for Democracy There is Regional Lack of Unity

But on support of democracy, there is regional lack of unity.

Yet, now that we have seen how our region can unite behind a shared purpose as we have in Haiti, there are so many other areas where such a common hemispheric effort could serve all of our peoples.

I think the best place to start is by renewing our commitment to one of the most important documents which not only the Hemisphere, but frankly the world, has ever seen: The Inter- American Democratic Charter.

Article 1 of the Charter puts it clearly and succinctly: “The peoples of the Americas have a right to democracy and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it.”

I think it says it all right there.

Our people have the right to democracy and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it.

The good news is that today our region, for the most part, is a bastion of democracies.

From the bottom of Chile to the top of Canada, this hemisphere has, for the most part, lived the words of our democratic charter.

We have established democracies for our peoples, and our governments have defended the system.

Yet, I think we all know that there have been countries where the commitment to democracy has been non-existent.

Of course, Cuba comes to mind in this regard.

It remains a dictatorship, rejecting the basic principle of democracy to which the hemisphere has committed itself.

But, it is those times when the second part of Article 1, our governments’ obligation to promote and defend democracy, becomes most important.

Some have read this as merely a domestic obligation, where each government must ensure its own democracy but the other nations can look away.

I don’t agree.

I think this Charter and the Democratic principles it embodies require the active support of states in the region.

When a country is clamping down on its free press or is unfairly tilting the scales in its elections, I think we should all speak out.

Unfortunately, in the instances where we have seen democratic backsliding, too often countries of our region have remained silent.

Choosing not to offend a leader who has clamped down on democratic rights has all too frequently become the norm, rather than the exception.

I believe this must change.

The OAS, an Answer to Regional Inability to Confront Democratic Backsliding

The OAS, an answer to regional inability to confront democratic backsliding, is very important.

Friends, our region is blessed in so many ways.

We have a rich heritage, a wealth of natural resources, and warm, intelligent, diverse, and welcoming peoples.

But that’s not all.

We also have an important regional organization, the OAS, the Organization of American States.

As I’ve said before, ours is not a perfect institution, but it’s key to our regional commitment to freedom, democracy, and human dignity.

The institutions of the OAS have observed elections, provided humanitarian assistance, and stood up for human rights and freedom of the press.

All of you who have sat through endless debates and slogged through interminable panels, know how frustrating the system can be.

I assure you — we have similar discussions in Congress.

It’s our Senate that invented the filibuster, frustrating to all of us, so I know. We’re far from perfect ourselves.

But, even with all that, I still believe in my system, and I believe in this body, as well.

Let me offer some examples as to how and why we need to continue to support the OAS and its specialized agencies.

In 2008, Leopoldo López, a former Caracas district mayor and prominent opposition leader, was barred from seeking elected office due to corruption allegations for which he has never been formally charged, prosecuted, or convicted.

The independent Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that Venezuela must allow Mr. López to run for president.

While President Chavez tried to dismiss the ruling, in the end he was bound to enforce it.

And while, in the end, the Venezuelan people chose another opposition candidate in its primary election, the principle of human rights and democracy was upheld — thanks to the Inter-American Court.

Freedom of the press is also another value we share, but, as we are too well aware, sometimes on a country-by-country basis, we remain silent when the rights of the independent media are trampled.

Again, I point to Venezuela as an example.

But, this is not the case for the OAS’s Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

Only last month, the Special Rapporteur, Catalina Botero Marino, expressed deep concern over the decision of Ecuador’s National Court of Justice affirming severe criminal and civil penalties against three executives and a journalist from El Universo newspaper for the publication of a column that offended President Rafael Correa.

I think we all know that President Correa pardoned the four and forgave their $40 million fine, but we also know that had not Catalina Botero and a colleague from the United Nations jointly spoken out, these four people would likely still be in jail facing a mountain of debt.

Likewise, in 2009, when Honduran President Zelaya was removed from office, Ms. Botero expressed concern about “permanent forms of exclusion and censorship” by the interim Honduran authorities at that time.

These examples only underscore the importance of the Inter-American Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression. I think that’s very important to state.

And finally, I would like to discuss one other way the OAS supports the Inter-American Charter: which is simply Election Observation.

In the most tense political environments, where candidates and parties are competing for the highest offices in a country, an independent observer is often needed to watch the voting and offer a reliable, dispassionate report on the conduct of the parties and candidates.

For years, my friends, this has been a specialty of the OAS.

We can all take pride in that.

In the year 2011 alone, the OAS sent observation missions to no less than twelve countries in the region.

And, some of those elections were quite contentious — and in some cases flawed.

I think we can all recall what happened in Nicaragua where an OAS observer team was obstructed from carrying out its mission.

It reported back to you that it was unable to certify that the elections were free and fair.

The OAS election observation mission was important in pointing out the problems of that election.  And it’s important in doing that in each and every election.

Later this year, there are critical elections in Venezuela.

With the stakes as high as they are, I think it’s in the interest of each and every country represented in this room to convey to the government of Venezuela that it should invite a robust observation mission from the OAS.

The people of Venezuela and this region deserve to have the confidence in the results of this election which an independent OAS observer mission would bring.

Threats to the OAS from Alternative Regional Organizations

So, hopefully, I have shared my feelings about the need for greater regional cooperation, our shared values — and the great and unique value of the OAS and its independent bodies, especially in those moments when our collective willingness to defend those shared value of democracy is not as strong.

But, just as we clearly see the need for the OAS in our region, I fear there are currents which would undermine it.

There are threats to the OAS from so called alternative regional organizations.

While I have no problem with sub-regional organizations to deal with the concerns of those smaller subsets of nations — I won’t hide from my own deep interest in the nations of the Caribbean and their particular needs — but I am concerned with organizations that may take us in the direction of division instead of unity.

My two biggest fears:

1. Weakening the OAS — the hemisphere’s most important regional organization.  I believe this is the premier organization, and I believe rival organizations that are set up to undermine it really do every nation in this hemisphere a terrible disservice. So weakening the OAS is a concern, and it should be a concern of all of ours.

2. Excluding the United States and Canada — two of the largest countries in the Hemisphere. I don’t see where that does anything.  I don’t see where that promotes unity or cooperation.  It’s divisive, and I don’t think it’s a good thing at all.

So excluding the United States and Canada — before we move down that path, intentionally or not, I think we should all pause and think about the damage that would cause this vital institution and the need for the region to come together in the pursuit of shared goals.


So, in conclusion let me say this.  As our leaders get ready to travel to Cartagena, and I will be there, as well, I think we can all heed the wisdom of those who came before us and commit ourselves once again to the principles in the Inter-American Democratic Charter.

Again, it is a pleasure to be with you today.

Thank you for your work.  Thank you for your work not only on behalf your countries, but thank you for your good work in behalf of our hemisphere. Thank you for allowing me to address you.  It is my honor and pleasure.

See Also:  OAS Press Release