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Twenty years later: Canada’s role in the OAS and the hemisphere

José Miguel Insulza


Canada's 20-year membership in the Organization of American States (OAS) has helped change our organization for the better. Canada brought to the OAS its long tradition of embracing the democratic system of government, respect for the rule of law and the promotion and protection of human rights for all. While these principles had always been espoused in the documents of the organization, Canada led by example and insisted that they also be practiced by its members. 

Canada’s first major initiative upon becoming a full member of the organization demonstrated its commitment to democracy in the Americas. It led the effort to set up the Unit for the Promotion of Democracy (UPD), to provide member states with advisory services and technical assistance to support the preservation and strengthening of their political institutions and democratic processes. The Unit’s work focused on strengthening electoral and legislative institutions, observing elections and implementing educational programs on democracy. The UPD was the precursor to the current Secretariat for Political Affairs, arguably one of the most dynamic and relevant areas of the OAS today.

In the same context, Canada was instrumental in the drafting of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which was signed by all OAS member states on Sept. 11, 2001. The Charter makes the practice of democracy an explicit condition of OAS membership and outlines the parameters for the creation of a democratic republic. 

The 2003 Declaration on Security in the Americas, which created a broader, multi-dimensional security framework for the region, also benefited from Canada’s support. Today, the OAS counts with an active and increasingly relevant Secretariat for Multidimensional Security, which works closely with our international partners and our membership to tackle the major security challenges facing them in the areas of public security, trafficking in people, arms and drugs, and terrorism.

Through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), Canada continues to support the work of the OAS in a wide variety of areas crucial to our membership, including the promotion of human rights, socio-economic development and poverty alleviation, energy conservation, gender equality, corporate social responsibility, as well as financial assistance for rapid response to political and humanitarian crises, which proved crucial in the aftermath of the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Today, Canada is the largest donor of specific funds to the OAS.

The OAS General Secretariat and its member countries have not only benefitted greatly from Canada’s financial and technical assistance, but also from its reputation as a voice of reason in the sometimes acrimonious and divisive debates within our organization and the hemisphere. 

I believe that it is important to state here, however, that the benefits of Canada’s 20-year affiliation with the OAS have not all flowed in one direction. The country’s decision to truly serve the interests of its own hemisphere by committing fully to the OAS has helped advance Canada’s economic and political interests in the Americas. 

As former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney put it recently, “twenty years after the fact, the lesson from our decision to join the OAS, and our experience as a full-fledged member, is a more confident assertion of who we are and where we are. It demonstrates how Canadian interests can be served more efficiently by enlightened foreign policy. That is also a way to demonstrate how the values we cherish as Canadians can be advanced throughout the hemisphere. Our decision to join was an acknowledgement of geographic reality, a declaration of serious political intent and a commitment to serve the interests of our own hemisphere.” 

The Canadian Foundation for the Americas (FOCAL) has accompanied Canada in its journey in the OAS and the Americas over the past two decades by providing a platform for analysis and policy recommendations on hemispheric issues. 

FOCAL has played a key role in the development of the OAS’ civil society engagement strategy by providing a reasoned voice for including civil society groups in OAS discussions. The Foundation’s constructive suggestions have helped bring an independent perspective to our deliberations.

In addition to working directly with the OAS, FOCAL has taken the lead in educating the Canadian media, opinion leaders and the general public on issues facing the Americas and the OAS’s role in strengthening democratic institutions, fostering security, promoting prosperity and justice for all, and defending human rights. Although FOCAL analysts have sometimes criticized OAS actions, they have remained steadfast in their support for the institution and its ongoing role as a forum for peaceful dialogue in our hemisphere. 

For example, an innovation of FOCAL was to join with other groups in a Think-Tank Initiative to support the Summits of the Americas. According to Colombian scholar Gabriel Murillo, this collaborative project between FOCAL, the Inter-American Dialogue and Fedesarrollo is based on the idea that “the regional agenda could innovate to move toward citizen democracy (...).” He explains that the initiative is “being implemented to enhance the hemispheric effort to ensure a successful Sixth Summit of the Americas to take place in 2012 in Cartagena, Colombia. (…) The central purpose is to contribute to the achievement of higher standards of efficiency and legitimacy in this multilateral diplomatic process.” 

For the past two decades, the Canadian government and its civil society partner, FOCAL, have worked closely with the OAS to advance the inter-American agenda and to help us reach our common goals.

José Miguel Insulza is Secretary General of the OAS.

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