By SIR RONALD SANDERS
“It was a coup d’état followed by a lynching”.
That’s how an official of the Organisation of American States (OAS) described a meeting of the Permanent Council of the hemispheric body held on April 3 in the most unorthodox circumstances and at which 17 countries tore up the rule book to force through a resolution on Venezuela.
If the meeting had been held two days earlier, no onlooker would have been blamed for believing it was an April Fool. As it turned out, the meeting that was on, then off, then on again, was akin to a tragi-comedy.
At its root was a determination by a group of 17 countries, led by Canada, Mexico and the United States, to adopt a resolution on Venezuela in which the Permanent Council would “undertake as necessary further diplomatic initiatives to foster the restoration of the democratic institutional system, in accordance with the Charter of the Organisation of American States and the Inter-American Democratic Charter, including the convening of a ministerial meeting”.
Such a Resolution would normally have been controversial among all 34 member states of the OAS but it had a chance of widespread support on March 31 after the Venezuelan Supreme Tribunal of Justice (STJ) suspended the powers of the elected National Assembly and arrogated them to itself. Only a small minority of the OAS member states could close their eyes to this action, which amounted to a serious alteration of the constitutional regime in Venezuela. My country, Antigua and Barbuda, expressed its deep concern.
In the context of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries, the situation would have been akin to the Supreme Court annulling the authority of Parliament and rendering elected representatives impotent and stripping them of parliamentary immunities. The democratic system, as CARICOM countries know and practice it, would have been shattered. No political party, lawyers’ association, trade union or church organisation would have stood for it.
Few could argue - and none with any validity - that the actions of the STJ had not altered the constitutional regime in Venezuela. And, according to Article 20 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, that alteration allowed “any member state or the Secretary-General” to “request the immediate convocation of the Permanent Council to undertake a collective assessment of the situation and to take such decisions as it deems appropriate”.
It was against this background that, on Friday March 31, there was a groundswell of support, including from the majority of CARICOM countries, for a Resolution that would demand a reversal of the STJ’s actions and the restoration of the powers of the Venezuelan National Assembly. However, the lead nations of the group of 17 recognised an obstacle: that on the next working day of the Permanent Council - Monday, April 3 - Bolivia would replace Belize as the Chair of the Council. They calculated that Bolivia, an extremely close ally of Venezuela, was unlikely to be in a hurry to call a meeting of the Permanent Council to discuss Venezuela under the only thing that allowed such a discussion, which was Article 20 of the Inter-Democratic Charter. So, without consultation with other member states, the powerful countries of the group of 17 persuaded the outgoing Chair, literally in the final hours of his tenure on March 31, to convoke the meeting for the afternoon of April 3.
However, on April 1, the authorities in Venezuela did exactly what the majority of member states of the OAS were planning to urge at any upcoming meeting of the Council. They instructed the TSJ to rescind its two rulings (155 and 156) that had effectively eviscerated the National Assembly. On the same day, the TSJ rescinded its decisions and the powers and immunities of the National Assembly were duly restored.
By so doing, the authorities in Venezuela had pulled from the jaws of OAS condemnation the alteration of the constitution that would have permitted a discussion of Venezuela by the Permanent Council without the consent of government. And, it is important to understand that the antiquated Charter of the OAS and the outmoded Inter-American Democratic Charter forbid interference in the internal affairs of a member state without its permission. Only Article 20 of the Democratic Charter allows a discussion.
Effectively, then on April 3 there was no further basis for a discussion of Venezuela within the rules laid down by the two governing Charters. As predicted, the Bolivian Chair, who assumed office at 11 o’clock that morning, decided to suspend the formal meeting of the Permanent Council scheduled for 2pm; instead he summoned an informal meeting of all member states for 4pm at which all countries could discuss the events in Venezuela, with Venezuela’s participation, away from the live television coverage that accompanies formal Council meetings.
The leaders of the group, who had engineered the formal meeting of the Council, protested its suspension and with the help of the Secretary-General (himself at loggerheads with the Venezuelan government), the meeting was re-instated without proper notice. Consequently, almost half of the member states were not present. Faced with a refusal by the Bolivian Chair to hold the meeting and an equally firm refusal by the Vice Chair from Haiti to step in, the dubious honour of chairing the meeting fell to Honduras, which was one of the group of countries that had demanded the meeting.
It remains more than doubtful that the meeting was held within the rules of the OAS. This was underlined by the elected Bolivian Chair, who made a cameo appearance at the meeting only to denounce it as a “coup d’état” before walking out. Then a Resolution, which was also not presented within the rules of the OAS, was adopted by “acclamation” by only 17 of the 34 member states, whereas the guiding rule states unequivocally that “decisions shall be taken by the vote of an absolute majority”.
Whatever anyone thinks of the situation in Venezuela, April 3 was an inglorious day in the history of the OAS. The events of that day did nothing to advance concerns about a member state; slammed the door on the opportunity for a tough and meaningful discussion; and hardened the lines of antagonism between member countries.
The rules and the Charters of the OAS are outmoded and in need of urgent review but disregard for them while they remain the only guiding principles, has eroded confidence and trust in the organisation. And, that is a great shame at a time when the world needs strong institutions of multilateralism.
• Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the Organisation of American States. He is also Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are his own. Responses and previous commentaries: www.sironaldsanders.com