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Realizing Canada's potential in the hemisphere: 20 years in the OAS

Peter Kent 

“Hemispheric co-operation is integral to Canada’s interests and the OAS holds the key to that co-operation. Canada’s presence here today signals a new departure in our relations with Latin America. We recognize that our interests are directly engaged here. We will no longer stand apart. Our decision to join the OAS symbolizes our determination to be full and constructive citizens of the Americas.”

These words, delivered 20 years ago by former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney, signalled Canada’s intention to join the Organization of American States (OAS). Seventeen years later, another Conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper, unveiled an ambitious agenda to reinvigorate relations throughout the region and enhance Canada’s influence. 

In 2008, as a further demonstration of his determination to re-engage the region, Prime Minister Harper took the unprecedented step of creating a Minister of State of Foreign Affairs position with special responsibility for the Americas. It has been an honour to serve my country in this role. For the past two years, I have travelled throughout the hemisphere, and during that time I have grown to appreciate the work of the OAS. 

As part of the current deepening of Canada’s engagement in the Americas, we are placing a strong emphasis on effective, results-oriented multilateralism. We, therefore, have an abiding interest in ensuring that the OAS remains a credible and relevant organization, capable of effectively responding to the needs of all of its members. To this end, we are actively supporting efforts to better define common priorities for the OAS in the future and to ensure that the organization’s resources are aligned with those priorities.

Within the OAS, the promotion and defence of human rights rank among Canada’s top priorities. We will continue to vigorously defend the integrity and independence of OAS human rights institutions, particularly in the face of efforts by certain actors in the region to weaken and discredit these integral bodies.

The promotion of democracy and security are key areas in which we see great opportunities for continued Canadian leadership in the OAS. The adoption of the Inter-American Democratic Charter in Quebec City in 2001 was a landmark achievement, and Canada is working within the OAS to fully implement this critical charter. 

My personal experiences in OAS mediation efforts in Honduras in 2009 have helped me see first-hand the importance of well-structured dialogue aimed at resolving crises.

With regard to security, the persistence of organized crime groups, particularly drug trafficking networks, poses a serious threat throughout the hemisphere. Prior to the 2010 G8 Summit in Muskoka, Canada hosted a special outreach session that included Colombia, Haiti and Jamaica to discuss these challenges, in particular how criminal groups and terrorist organizations co-operate across regions. It was agreed that these “partnerships of convenience” are serious and growing problems that require a co-ordinated and effective response.

In an attempt to address threats to security in the region, our government is making major investments on a number of fronts, including through the Anti-Crime Capacity Building Program, the Counter-Terrorism Capacity Building Program and the Global Peace and Security Program. To support OAS efforts, our government is also providing resources that will expand and strengthen the capacity of the organization to act as a facilitator and mediator of conflicts.

Twenty years ago, former prime minister Mulroney committed Canada to playing a leadership role in the OAS and across the Americas. In 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper unveiled the strategy that is making it a reality.

As we celebrate Canada’s 20th anniversary of membership at the OAS, our government’s decision to strengthen engagement in the Americas has established Canada as a key player in our neighbourhood. 

The Honourable Peter Kent is Canada’s Minister of State of Foreign Affairs for the Americas.

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