Democracy Promotion & Human Rights

  1. Democracy Promotion & Human Rights
  2. Development
  3. Hemispheric Security

The promotion of peace, democracy, and good governance are core OAS concerns.

On September 11, 2001, the OAS adopted the Inter-American Democratic Charter designed to strengthen and preserve representative democracy in the hemisphere. The Democratic Charter prescribes steps to be taken in the event of an unconstitutional interruption of the democratic order or the unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime that seriously impairs the democratic order of a member state.

Article 1 states: “The peoples of the Americas have a right to democracy and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it.” It also states that: “Democracy is essential for the social, political, and economic development of the peoples of the Americas.”

The Democratic Charter defines the essential elements of representative democracy in very specific terms, including: respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms; holding free and fair elections; a pluralistic system of political parties and organizations; separation of powers; independence of the branches of government; freedom of expression and of the press; and constitutional subordination of all state institutions to the legally constituted civilian authority.

In the event that one of the OAS members should fail to uphold the essential elements of democratic life, the Democratic Charter allows a member state or the Secretary General to request an immediate convocation of the Permanent Council to consider the facts, deploy diplomatic efforts, or use other political mediation. If there is a clear interruption of democratic order, or if an undemocratic alteration is not remedied, the document calls for a General Assembly that may, among other things, suspend the offending government from the inter-American system, which requires a two-thirds vote of the member states.

The 2005 OAS General Assembly was hosted by the United States for the first time since 1974 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida under the theme “Delivering the Benefits of Democracy.” The Declaration of Florida and Resolution 2154, adopted at the meeting, marked an important multilateral commitment to advance the hemisphere’s democratic agenda.

Building on previous achievements of the inter-American community to address threats to democracy—Resolution 1080, the Washington Protocol and the Quebec Summit—the declaration and accompanying resolution empowered and gave the Secretary General a new mandate to develop initiatives for regional cooperation to strengthen implementation of the Democratic Charter in order to proactively address threats to democracy. This mandate has been reaffirmed at subsequent OAS General Assemblies, and continues to serve as the basis for on-going efforts at the OAS in this area.

In recent years, the OAS has invoked Resolution 1080, the Washington Protocol, and the Inter-American Democratic Charter on multiple occasions to support representative democracy in situations where democratic practices or institutions have been challenged in OAS member states. With each new crisis, the OAS has worked to find peaceful, constitutional solutions to key political crises in the hemisphere.

Since its creation in 2006, the OAS Secretariat for Strengthening Democracy (SSD) has been committed to a tripartite program of democracy promotion, good governance, and crisis prevention in the hemisphere. The SSD consists of a tripartite division consisting of the Department of Electoral Cooperation and Observation, the Department of Sustainable Democracy and Special Missions, and a Department of Effective Public Management.

The SSD coordinates OAS electoral observation missions, develops projects to consolidate democratic governance through cooperative work with legislatures and governments, political parties, grassroots civic development and civil society organizations. The SSD also provides advice and assistance in the modernization of electoral laws, civil and electoral registries, and civil administration. Finally, the SSD develops and manages crisis-prevention, peace-building, crisis resolution, and post-conflict recovery programs to hemispheric countries, including boundary dispute negotiation.

Located in Washington, DC, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) is distinguished from other multilateral organizations’ human rights entities by its political autonomy. Its seven commission members are elected in their own right, not as representatives of governments. IACHR autonomy is further enhanced by its prerogative to initiate human rights investigations without the approval of the Secretary General or the Permanent Council. In response to a Santiago Summit initiative, in 1998 the IACHR established a Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, with a mandate to support and promote freedom of the press.

Human rights in the inter-American system are based on the 1948 American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and the 1969 American Convention on Human Rights. The United States signed the American Convention on Human Rights in 1977, but has not yet ratified it.

The IACHR and Inter-American Court of Human Rights — located in San Jose, Costa Rica—give the OAS an active and, at times, forceful role in promoting and protecting human rights. Through private persuasion and published reports on human rights infringements, the IACHR has been instrumental in improving OAS members’ human rights practices and has helped to resolve conflicts. The IACHR’s annual report has chapters on human rights problems in general, details regarding individual cases, and country status reports. The IACHR also publishes special reports, which have been effective in challenging abuses in specific countries.

Election observation is a key element in OAS efforts to strengthen democracy in the Hemisphere. The OAS enjoys a longstanding reputation for impartiality and technical competence in election observation, with evolving, stringent standards.

Democracy starts with clean elections. The OAS today is viewed throughout the world as a reliable force for democracy, and election observation is a major part of that perception. OAS has become the leading election observation organization in the hemisphere since its first 1990 mission to Nicaragua. The Organization has successfully observed presidential, legislative, regional and special elections throughout the hemisphere. Representing a multilateral organization, OAS observers are often able to establish closer relationships with and gain greater access to political and electoral institutions than other observer groups. The OAS, in addition, has the institutional capacity to organize larger electoral missions and keep observers on the ground longer than other organizations.

These missions, however, are not infallible and pose significant challenges for the OAS and its credibility in ensuring the transparency of the process.  Some of the key challenges facing the OAS today on this front — including the integrity of voter information, corrupt registries, the politicization of electoral authorities, threats to media, civil society, and democratic institutions in some countries, and weak political parties ― must be addressed with renewed attention to the underlying political problems that foster distrust and undemocratic behavior.

The United States supports OAS electoral observation efforts as guardians of free and fair elections, and efforts to address the complex issues surrounding election observation and adherence to clear, universal, guidelines such as the Declaration of Principles and Code of Conduct for International Election Observation (PDF 70 KB) that the OAS, IFES, and others endorsed at United Nations headquarters in October 2005.

The Declaration’s Guarantees for Election Observation – article 12 – offers concise guidelines that observation missions must be guaranteed, a priori and unequivocally, including:

  • Unimpeded access to all stages of the election process and all election technologies;
  • Unimpeded access to all persons concerned with election processes, both governmental and non-governmental;
  • Unimpeded freedom of movement throughout the country, in compliance with domestic laws;
  • Freedom to issue public statements and reports without interference or prior approval;
  • Freedom of a Mission to choose its members without interference, and to receive country-wide accreditation for all Mission members;
  • Freedom from interference or reprisal by governmental, security, or electoral authorities in the lawful activities of the Mission and its personnel.

Africa and the Americas have enshrined a shared commitment to democracy in two key visionary documents: the Inter-American Democratic Charter and the African Charter on Democracy, Elections, and Governance (PDF 308 KB). Both regional organizations are also engaged, through an inter-regional initiative entitled the “OAS-AU Democracy Bridge,” in shared efforts to promote democracy and good governance.

With U.S. support, the OAS launched this effort in July 2007 when it hosted the first “OAS-AU Democracy Bridge Forum” (PDF 2.4 MB) in Washington to share experiences, best practices and lessons learned on mechanisms and initiatives to strengthen and defend democracy. The General Secretariats of the OAS and AU signed a “Statement of Intent to Cooperate” at the conclusion of the Forum committing each organization to review opportunities and activities for the development and strengthening of democratic institutions in both regions. This Statement was subsequently endorsed during the 2007 Community of Democracies Ministerial held in Bamako, Mali.

The June 2008 OAS General Assembly, through Resolution AG/RES. 2419 (XXXVIII-O/08) (PDF 90 KB), expressed additional Inter-American support for deepened cooperation between the African Union and the OAS, resolving “to improve cooperation between the OAS and regional organizations; encourage the adoption, and support the implementation where these exist, of regional democracy charters and cooperative initiatives; and strengthen the capacities of regional organizations through the sharing of best practices.” The cooperation initiative has been endorsed at subequent General Assemblies facilitating continued exchanges and collaboration.

The 1999 OAS General Assembly created a committee on civil society participation to develop mechanisms to accredit representatives from civil society and non-governmental organizations in OAS activities. The committee completed a set of participation guidelines, which the Permanent Council approved in December 1999. Currently, over 200 organizations are registered to participate and engage in OAS activities. The OAS has a long history of cooperation with civil society organizations, which has been enhanced by the Summit of the Americas consultative process and the efforts of the corresponding Summits of the Americas Secretariat. As a result, civil society organizations have made significant contributions to the work of the IACHR, the OAS , and the Inter-American Council for Integral Development (CIDI). The OAS civil society guidelines establish an accreditation process similar to that used within the U.N. system.

The OAS Mission to Support the Peace Process in Colombia is involved in the verification process for the disarmament of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) right-wing paramilitaries and their reintegration into civilian life in Colombia. With the support of the United States and the international community through efforts such as the OAS/MAPP, Colombia is building on the achievements made through Plan Colombia and its follow-on programs to reduce poverty, strengthen the rule of law, and significantly reduce violence in Colombia.

A key element in the U.S. commitment to the peace process in Colombia, this OAS Mission has assisted to advance, with strong U.S. support, the Colombian demobilization process and facilitate dialogue between negotiating parties. The efforts of the OAS/MAPP are mandated through Resolution CP/RES. 859 (1397/04) (PDF 8 KB) of the OAS Permanent Council, in which the Council resolved its unequivocal support for the efforts of the Colombian Government to find a firm and lasting peace in that country, and to express the willingness of the Organization of American States to monitor those efforts.” For the OAS/MAPP, “the fundamental subjects of the peace process are the communities, which should be the focus, at the post-demobilization stage, of two fundamental issues: protection of the population and rebuilding the social fabric of those communities affected by the paramilitary presence.”