Honourable Chair and members of the committee, thank you for having me here today.
In the Americas, we have built a hemisphere on the foundation of a common vision of shared values we believe in, a vision of inclusiveness and multilateralism.
The Organization of American States is the oldest regional organization in the world, tracing its origins back to 1889 and evolving along with the political, social, and economic development of countries throughout the region.
What makes the OAS a unique institution is its clear membership requirements. When joining the OAS, each and every member state chose to negotiate and sign onto a set of documents, a blueprint of sorts, outlining the principles that define who we are, what we believe, and how we interact with each other.
Each of the OAS Charter, the Inter-American Democratic Charter, and the Inter-American conventions on human rights and combatting corruption is an agreement, among others, that includes commitments based on chosen principles of openness, democracy, and co-operation. These agreements created both the incentives to adhere to and mechanisms for enforcing these collective norms to ensure a basic level of well-being for our citizens.
This is a forum that prioritizes dialogue and the rights and well-being of citizens. The promise and opportunity of the hemisphere lie in the shared values of the OAS, in which stronger democracies, clearer rule of law, more opportunity, and a more consistent and reliable business environment are the keys to success.
I was elected to this position on a campaign of more rights for more people, and this is now the centrepiece of our engagement. The hemisphere remains one of the most unequal, and its citizens are tired of exclusion. We are weary of racism, persecution, prejudice, and sterile conflicts. We all have a responsibility to ensure that the rights recognized in all of those international agreements are actually made available to the citizens of the hemisphere. We need to ensure that there is more democracy, more rights, more security, and more prosperity for all.
We are at an interesting juncture in modern history. There is a trend in some of the most developed economies, most recently in the United States, to have a growing appetite for some new populist politics. Canada has the opportunity to play a distinct role in this conversation. At a time when there is an increasing trend towards isolationism, Canada has reinforced its commitment to pluralism, openness, and inclusivity, a view, I will point out, that is much welcomed by your Latin neighbours.
Canada's priorities are in line with those of the majority of the hemisphere—inclusive growth, increasing economic integration, clean energy, and multilateral co-operation.
At the OAS we are fortunate to have had a number of prominent Canadians work with us. Your current Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of International Development, , used to work at the OAS, as did your committee vice-chair Hélène Laverdière. Your committee colleague Peter Kent, as minister of state for the Americas, also played a key role in the special OAS general assembly convened to analyze the situation in Honduras following the coup against President Zelaya in 2009.
Canada's approach to the region has been unique. You maintained a historically open relationship with Cuba, even when doing so was unpopular. Canada was one of the first observers to the Pacific Alliance. The recent move to lift the visa requirement for Mexican visitors is seen as a public declaration of Canada's openness to Latin America.
With close to 1.5 million people with Latin American and Caribbean roots living in Canada, this is an occasion to strengthen our already vibrant people-to-people ties. It is also an opportunity to forge new relationships with friends and allies throughout the hemisphere.
Canada has been an important donor and contributor to the OAS and its activities, and must be thanked for its integral contributions and financial support. However, I would argue that Canada plays a much more important role. Canada is our partner at the OAS. It has been a strong advocate in modernizing the institution and is a leader in our discussions in the permanent council. A strong advocate for universal freedoms, democracy, and human rights, it was at the 2001 summit of the Americas, hosted in Quebec City, that the idea of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which is a true constitution for the Americas, was born.
This was a powerful message. In response, Latin America welcomes more Canada. This moment offers a real opportunity for Canada to engage.
One of the most important roles the OAS plays in the hemisphere is in facilitating dialogue for the prevention, management, and resolution of crisis and conflict. I commend you that in every major special mission the OAS has conducted—from the long-standing OAS mission to support the peace process in Colombia, to the special mission in Haiti a decade ago, to the recently initiated mission to support the fight against corruption and impunity in Honduras—Canada has been a leader and strategic partner for the OAS, all its member states, and the people of the Americas. The message is clear that in a world increasingly resistant to intrusion into domestic affairs, Canada has a strong voice and a distinct position that regional solidarity cannot come at the cost of human rights abuses, undermining democratic institutions, and exclusionary policies.
The good news is that the Latin America that exists today is radically different from that of a few decades ago. On the whole, we have stronger democratic institutions, greater rule of law, better social protection, and more integrated and open economies. However, there are still some significant challenges undermining growth and stability in the region. The ongoing crisis in Venezuela continues to have a devastating impact on its population. All aspects of life in the country—humanitarian, social, economic, and political—continue to deteriorate. Dialogue has become a tactic to delay action, and has lost the confidence of the parties as a result.
In Nicaragua, the OAS has been able to enter into a structured dialogue with the government with the expectation that some specific results can be achieved to strengthen the democratic space in that country, giving voice to more people. Our goal is to build the confidence needed for successful dialogue.
The OAS has also proudly been able to support a historic step forward with the signing of the peace deal in Colombia. Even after the setback of the referendum, all parties were committed to achieving a sustainable outcome. The peace and success achieved is a result of precisely the constructive dialogue that could benefit its neighbours. In Haiti it is this type of meaningful dialogue that will be necessary to resolve the political impasse that we've seen keep the country at a standstill.
Fundamental freedoms, human rights, and democracy do not only exist when it is convenient, or solely when they reinforce what we want; they must exist always. You have to care as much about your opponent's right to express their view as you do about your own. The ethical and moral values that we define in the Inter-American Democratic Charter and in the charter of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, for instance, mean nothing if we do not make them a daily reality for the people of the Americas. Values must come before political interests. When we lose these values, society loses.
When there are violations, we have an obligation to address them. Words are not enough. We must be prepared to act, especially when it is difficult to do so. As Desmond Tutu once famously said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” There is no small country when you are defending big principles. All countries can demonstrate their commitment to these ideas.
This organization, this community of states, is vital to ensuring the fullest possible observance of human rights in the hemisphere and is an essential instrument for safeguarding democracy. As the secretary general of the OAS, it is my responsibility to champion and protect these values at the core of this institution and at the very heart of the Americas.
As secretary general, I must represent governments, but I must also represent a position. I must be a voice for those without a voice, those who are most discriminated against. I must be a voice for those who suffer inequality and who suffer from the lack of protection of their rights. I must be the staunchest defender of those rights.
José Antonio Marina says that the reason our societies fail is that we develop unjust societies. Democracy means nothing if we don't commit to work for democratization every single day. If we don't provide equal access to rights and if we keep our societies in the Americas among the most unequal in the world, we will never be able to achieve the right functioning of democracy. This is the reason I took the post: to meet this commitment to ensure that in the Americas we can achieve more rights for more people.
I come back to my raison d'être: more rights for more people. Unequal distribution of income and access to basic goods or services and justice are constant factors that directly affect the full enjoyment of our citizens' political, economic, social, and cultural rights. Human rights are the very core of equality. In affirming that the promotion and protection of human rights is a prerequisite for the existence of a democratic society, and recognizing the importance of the continued development and strengthening of the inter-American human rights system for the consolidation of democracy, it is incumbent on all of us as politicians, leaders, diplomats, civil society, and citizens of the Americas to achieve greater equality for people. Greater equality will deliver better citizens, and the elimination of the list of discrimination will deliver better citizens.
There's another challenge that is central to the region's stability and growth, and that is corruption. Besides undermining trust in the government, corruption directly affects the citizens economically. Fighting corruption is a key aspect of the democratic exercise of power that is enshrined in the OAS, and it is a priority for all member states. This has also been a focus of my term here at the OAS, from the outset. Across the Americas, corruption among politicians has mobilized citizens to take to the streets demanding transparency and the end of corruption and impunity.
In Honduras, the people protested in indignation over government corruption. This is why the bold and ambitious mission to support the fight against corruption and impunity in Honduras, the MACCIH, was created. The mechanism for follow-up on the implementation of the Inter-American Convention against Corruption, MESICIC, is another example of a key OAS tool to support strengthening, accountability, and openness among member states. The fact that it includes almost all member states voluntarily participating in the process stands on its own.
Last Friday was International Anti-Corruption Day. Your foreign affairs minister, Mr. , stated, “Corruption is a major obstacle to sustainable development and is destructive in all its forms.” I couldn't agree more. Our moral principles mean nothing if we do not fight every day against corruption, and if we do not address the enormous inequalities our citizens face in access to rights.
Honourable Chair and members of the committee, common values and a shared commitment to openness, democracy, and co-operation define us a hemisphere. Whether the issue is the defence of human rights, combatting corruption, or working toward peace and reconciliation, these are issues on which we share a common vision in the Americas. This is the role of the Organization of American States: a forum for meaningful dialogue that pushes us forward towards the fulfillment of the vision for our Americas that we all share, that we have all expressed, and to which we have all committed ourselves.
What we see in Venezuela is the complete deterioration of the political system. I have never seen a country fall down so completely as has Venezuela in the last year economically, socially, and politically. Venezuela is the country with the second-highest number of political prisoners in the continent. Venezuela is a country that does not recognize the legislative branch of government. They don't recognize the electoral rights of the people to recall a president. They don't even recognize that a humanitarian crisis exists with people dying and with what is going on with the Venezuelans and with newborn babies in hospitals suffering from chronic diseases. Children are dying from diphtheria, which is such a simple thing to resolve with a simple vaccination.
We have seen the beginning of a political dialogue, first under the coordination of President Zapatero, and then when the Vatican joined forces with three former presidents in order to negotiate between the government and the opposition.
What we have seen since this dialogue started is something short of amazing, because the situation has deteriorated even further. Since March or April there have been more political prisoners. Since the Vatican joined the dialogue, we have seen four tables of negotiation. The first one was about institutional issues, especially the return of power to the legislative branch of government. In fact, since then the legislative branch has lost two more powers—to judge the president and to elect members of the national council for elections.
The second table was about reparations for victims and political prisoners. I think the Government of Venezuela will free political prisoners when it wants to, at a very low level, and it will keep doing so because politically it's very important. This is a table that is coordinated by the Vatican, so it's very important for Venezuela to keep the Vatican engaged in the dialogue. The thing is that since March, the number of political prisoners has gone from 80 to about 120. That gives it a cushion of 40 political prisoners to free during this time. The fact is that it frees them whenever it wants to and in whatever conditions it wants. We always get very happy when some of them are freed, especially the serious humanitarian cases like the one of Vladimir Araque.
The third table was about the economy of the country. In that sense you see that the country has deteriorated and promises to deteriorate more next year. Things are going down the drain and keep going down the drain. The only concern that I have is that they keep trying to sell—and in a certain way they have sold it to the opposition—that there is an economic war against Venezuela. The only economic war against Venezuela is the incompetence of its government. The biggest pressure that the government has is its own incompetence to rule the country.
Table four was about the electoral chronogram. In fact, with the electoral chronogram, what we saw happen at that negotiation table was that the first thing that was killed there was the recall referendum. They lost any perspective of doing that recall referendum during 2016, and that was definitely done at that negotiation table. Plus, there was an election called in Amazonas, which meant the opposition resigned with a majority of two-thirds in the national assembly. That was another loss of power for the national assembly.
We have seen incredible deterioration during these months. We have to keep denouncing it, and I think we have to keep the pressure on in this situation. The worst thing would be for the government to feel impunity when they do these kinds of things. I think we have to keep pressure on, keep denouncing, and keep trying to bring solutions so that they can bring back democratic order as soon as possible to Venezuela.
Thank you for the question.
Yes, these are very tough times for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and very tough times for the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
Last year, with very short notice, we reported on their financial crisis, especially because of the very dramatic fall in voluntary contributions by different countries in and out of the commission. That crisis made everybody aware of the importance of the system and aware that we needed to make it possible to receive more and better contributions for them.
The thing is, the system survived the crisis this year but there were no structural solutions for the future. Under these circumstances, we may face the same kinds of problems next year, so this year we need to work from the very beginning of the year, in order to obtain more contributions from the countries in order to sustain most of the growth.
The sessions have been maintained. This year, because Panama offered to host the sessions of the commission, next year it will be Uruguay hosting the sessions of the commission, so that part is resolved.
For the next general assembly, we need to find a structural solution, because the budget that it receives from the regular funding of the organization has been kept at the very same level, which is much more than anybody can ask for, because we have reduced by at least 12% to 15% the rest of the commissioners or secretaries of the organization. We kept it at the very same level.
We'll have to work very hard during the year in order to keep resources coming, and we expect that at the next general assembly in Mexico we will be able to find a solution.
There are some proposals that were not approved in the last general assembly budget. One of them was to direct late payments, for example, by Brazil, to the commission. I think we can do that, at least for a high percentage—at least 50%—of the late payments that we have received this year.
There was a proposal by Mexico to increase the contributions by the countries to the inter-American human rights system. If we expect to cover practically all of the projects, countries' total contributions to the OAS will have to be increased by something like 10% to 12%. That could be a structural solution and could give the organization and the inter-American human rights system the autonomy and independence from a financial point of view that they definitely need to have to do their work.
First of all, we don't compete with any other regional organization. What the OAS does is unique. Not UNASUR nor CELAC nor any other regional or sub-regional organization has the juridical tools that the organization has, the conventions, the charters. That is our biggest asset.
Most of the countries of the continent, if they have responsibilities for and obligations on human rights, it's because they're distinct to the American system. If they have responsibilities and obligations related to democracy, it's mainly because of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. That is more complete than the rest of the democratic clauses that exist on the continent, mainly because it is very clear about the obligations of the countries and very clear about the rights of the people, and it also has mechanisms in order to implement solutions for political crises on the continent.
The thing is, the OAS is mainly important for the countries that you have mentioned. If you say, for example.... The rhetoric is very strong. Lately, it is not so strong against the organization itself, but against the secretary general, and that is an improvement.
Voices: Oh, oh!
Mr. Luis Leonardo Almagro Lemes: But imagine this: for a country like Venezuela, the former permanent representative to the OAS was also the vice-minister for the western hemisphere and for the Americas. That shows the importance the organization has. It is a political forum whereby they have a possibility for dialogue with the United States and Canada, and that is valid for practically every other country.
It is the only forum on the continent that puts everybody together, whereas when they want to explain their issues, if they explain them in UNASUR, they bore everybody, but in the OAS, it has a purpose, because the target is, of course, the fight against imperial maladies, against empires and all of this.
I don't have to make any special effort to keep everybody together. In fact, I don't expect anybody to agree with my positions. When they agree, it's fine. The thing is that my positions have to agree with what makes all the countries stay together, and that is that they have to be responsible about the Inter-American Democratic Charter. I have to be responsible about every human rights convention. If my positions are consistent with the charter and the conventions, then everybody should be behind them. Nobody can challenge that, because it has consistency and it has prior consensus before any of the political circumstances or situations that exist now.
I think the organization will keep working. The thing is, we have to honour these instruments and tools that we have. The worst thing that could happen to the organization would be if these conventions and charters just stayed in the archives of the organization or to the library of the organization. They have to be alive, and they have to make the countries responsible.
Along with that, as you can see, in the last discussions all along the continent, the OAS has been deeply involved. That is the other thing we have to do. The worst thing that the organization can do is to retreat when there is a problem. We have to go out and face the problems and propose the solutions. That is what we are doing these days.
Of course, this is about democracy and about human rights, and those are two very sensitive political issues. Nobody likes to receive criticism about their political systems or their protection of human rights.
You annoy a lot of people when you present these cases, but it is the only way the organization can work.
The social challenges, security challenges, and economic and political challenges that we have in the northern triangle are quite unique. There are many institutions working to try to provide solutions and to eliminate the causes of most of the problems that exist in the northern triangle.
Some of them are of course related to drug trafficking and violence, and that, of course, brings insecurity and also creates instability in the political system, plus it makes the people migrate.
We have been very pleased with the financial support that the countries have received in order to create better economic and social conditions, but the thing is that the countries will have to keep improving their democracies and their political systems. If they are not able to make their democracies work better, to eradicate corruption, to eradicate the financing of political campaigns by narco-trafficking, and if they are not able to eradicate the violence by organized crime that exists in that region, the political system will not be able to provide the democratic solutions to that.
Our organization has done a study to analyze the substance of conditions. Mainly the picture is like this. One of these three countries is Canada. That means the countries whose democratic systems are working better. Then there are countries that are sort of good, and some not so good, and in some specific cases, the democratic system is falling down, such as Haiti and Venezuela.
This is valid for at least democracy. It's also valid for development, and it puts the countries in exactly the same place for development, for access to rights and equity, and for security. That means that democracy is the tool in order.... If you cannot make your democratic system work properly, then.... A lot of these problems are related to the collateral effects, in this case, security and access to rights.
The situation from a humanitarian point of view is quite serious, and the months ahead are very important in order to further implement the projects and plans for the northern triangle, based on the support of financial institutions to create the social and economic conditions, but that will have to be sustained in a stronger political system. That's the only way this can work.
We are going to measure this in a sort of easy way, and that is by looking at the number of migrants who go from the northern triangle to Mexico or to the United States. Conditions are really serious because of human trafficking and human rights violations. The situation is much deeper than what we can express here. Human rights violations are much more serious than anything we can say.
For example, women and children are the ones mainly affected. The women who have to start the migration process from the northern triangle to Mexico and the United States usually take contraceptive pills and injections when they leave, because they know they will be raped at least twice on their way.
The main task is to keep walking—like Johnnie—and to become more relevant on the main issues in the continent, the main problems in the continent. The OAS cannot have a silent voice. We have to talk and we have to make our points of view very clear.
We have so far restructured the organization. We restructured it last year. This year we made a strategic plan in order to have a strategic view for the organization in the days ahead, based on the four pillars of the organization: democracy, human rights, security, and development.
To do the main things the organization does in human rights, we need the money. We need the money because it is very difficult to promote and implement projects and to have people working on the ground if you don't have the money. About democracy, from what I have seen, it is not such expensive work except for the missions, such as observing elections.
The thing is that it is very difficult to say that we'll be able to fulfill our work in this five-year term. Democracy and human rights work will be incomplete no matter how much we do. It's permanent work. There will always be challenges ahead. I expect that we'll be able to fix most of the democratic crises that the continent has faced. I think we have an opportunity ahead in Haiti, for example. For the first time they have a president who has been legitimized by a very clear election.
The other democratic challenge we have, the most serious, is Venezuela. We'll keep doing what we have been doing. Nobody has been able to replace us, in that sense. Everybody can mediate in Venezuela. Everybody has offered to mediate. Not everybody, however, has denounced what is going on in Venezuela. I highly appreciated the statements of the Canadian government about Venezuela, the declarations here, and also those in the congress. That's been a very substantial push ahead on what needed to be achieved in Venezuela.
If one day we can have a democratic system working among the 34 countries, that will be fine, but there will always be something to resolve. Something that will take a while more, of course, is the Cuban case. We will not be able to have representative democracy in Cuba in the short term. That is a fact. It will take a while, but one day maybe the people of Cuba will be able to decide about their future. We hope so.