Ronald Sanders | Caribbean’s role as a voice of reason in a fractured OAS
On May 31, the Organization of American States (OAS) faced a prolonged and contentious debate that lasted from 2:30 in the afternoon until well past midnight. This episode, marked by acrimony and political undercurrents, which was webcast publicly and instantly to the world, is likely to be revisited during the upcoming OAS General Assembly from June 21 to 23 in Washington, DC, the headquarters of the OAS.
The discussion on May 31 was officially about the budget of the organisation, but there were many undercurrents in the contentious debate. Among them were antagonistic attitudes by a few countries toward the OAS secretary-general, which were unreasonably morphed into hostility to the OAS as an institution.
At the end of the debate, which was characterised by classic filibustering techniques by representatives of four countries, a ceiling for the Budget, proposed by Antigua and Barbuda on behalf of all 14 CARICOM countries, was adopted by 25 of the 32 active member states of the organisation, with five countries against and two abstentions. The five countries that opposed were Bolivia, Chile, Costa Rica, Colombia and Mexico, and the abstaining countries were El Salvador and Honduras.
The current estimated cost for the organisation to fulfil its mandates is $115 to $120 million, but its real budget for 2023 is a mere $82.8 million. This had led to a severe reduction in staff and many of the beneficial programmes in development, security, functional cooperation, technical assistance, and even in human rights monitoring. The proposal by CARICOM countries for a budget ceiling was $92.1 million, woefully short by as much as $28 million of actual costs, but, nonetheless, an attempt to keep the organisation from ineffectiveness and inefficiency. Yet, resistance persisted.
The OAS has been in a financial crisis for many years. Over the past seven years, there has been no increase in the contributions of the member states to the organisation, except by 14 countries since 2021. The quota increase for the 14 countries was occasioned by a decision of the US Congress to limit the US share of the budget to no more than 49.9 per cent. It fell to 14 countries to fill the gap; among them were nine CARICOM countries whose quotas increased by 33.33 per cent. At no time did the 14 affected countries threaten or seek to disrupt the functioning of the organisation by refusing to pay the increased burden that fell upon them.
Yet, a few countries, faced with an increase in their quotas – at the highest end, of approximately 36 per cent – a mere three per cent higher than the sum that nine CARICOM countries have been paying for the past three years (2021-2023) – strenuously objected to the budget ceiling proposed by CARICOM countries in the contentious budget debate of May 31.
The OAS is the only regional or international organisation in which there is no penalty if member states never pay their assessed contributions. Hence, there are member states that have not paid for years, affecting both the actual money available to the organisation and its cash flow. The truth is the organisation is limping along, a shattered shadow of its former self.
The External Audit Committee of the OAS has officially warned the member states that “for over a decade, the in-year budget is dramatically insufficient to meet the programmatic and administrative requirements of the OAS”, It repeated five recommendations to improve the dire situation. But no action has been taken as the OAS drifts relentlessly into paralysis.
Ministers and ambassadors of the 32 active member states of the OAS will gather from June 21 to 23 for the OAS General Assembly with little prospect of revitalising and rejuvenating the OAS whose ancient charter and outdated rules desperately require change to save the organisation from being strangled by them. The charter has not been amended since 1993 and it is not fit for purpose in a world where events connect every nation. The organisation’s rules also urgently need change.
So why should CARICOM countries care? The answer is that, properly functioning, the organisation has the capacity to maintain peace and security in the hemisphere, which is crucial to trade and investment, political stability and economic growth. The OAS also provides valuable mechanisms for functional cooperation between states on a range of issues, such as combating crime, drug-abuse control, advancing the interests of women, and education.
Further, the OAS is the only hemispheric organisation in which small states have a voice and a vote equal to the larger states, like Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Mexico and the US.
It is in the OAS that CARICOM countries can influence decisions and advance ideas in the Americas that redound to the benefit of its own peoples. That is why CARICOM’s role in the work of the OAS, including at the General Assembly in a few days’ time, should be that of an honest broker, providing a bridge to narrow differences between others, and a voice of reason when reasonableness can be of the greatest benefit to all.
Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda’s ambassador to the US and the OAS. The views expressed are entirely his own. For responses and previous commentaries, visit www.sirronaldsanders.com.