The 43rd Organization of American States (OAS) General Assembly took place in Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala, from June 4 to June 6 and centered on the theme “For a Comprehensive Policy against the World Drug Problem in the Americas.” This topic was backed by Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina following statements in 2012 calling for the legalization of some illicit drugs as a means of responding to the drug problem
The Assembly marked the first open, region-wide discussion on the impact of drugs, following the May 17 publication of the OAS report “The Drug Problem in the Americas.” This report analyzes the current drug problem and considers several policy scenarios for the coming years. Delegates at the gathering also discussed the importance of human rights in the Americas and published several resolutions regarding the rights of women, minorities, migrant workers, and indigenous peoples, reaffirming the efforts of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.
The representatives of the member states have emphasized a commitment to a cooperative, regional response to the drug problem from both a public health and a violence reduction perspective. The discussions carried on in the General Assembly revealed that an effective approach to drug policy ought to be multifaceted. Some discussed measures included a focus on public outreach and education and early intervention with young people. They also stressed the need to respond to more difficult international issues such as drug supply and demand reduction, organized crime, drug trafficking, and the money laundering that follows the drug trade.
In advocating for new alternatives to current drug policy, the OAS report, “The Drug Problem in the Americas,” called for a serious discussion of the legalization of some drugs as an alternative response to the drug problem. While some member states supported the consideration of decriminalization of marijuana, Washington has consistently opposed such measures on a wide scale, frustrating the efforts of some of its counterparts in the OAS. The decriminalization of hard drugs, the trafficking of which contributes to violence in the region, remained off the table.
In their final declaration, the OAS member states recognized the global nature of the drug problem and revealed the increasingly complex threats the issue poses to “health, social relations, citizen security, and […] the integrity of democratic institutions, public policies, development, and economic activities.” The final declaration urged that the drug problem would “require a comprehensive, balanced, multidisciplinary approach, built on a framework of full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.
The Drug Problem is a Shared Responsibility: Dialogue with Observer Countries
During the dialogue between the heads of delegation on June 4, Secretary General José Miguel Insulza extended an invitation to representatives from among the 68 observer countries to share their insights on drug policy in their respective states. Many of these delegations praised the OAS’s “groundbreaking” report “The Drug Problem in the Americas.” There was unanimous support for constructive dialogue on current and previous drug policy. The representative of the United Kingdom and Northern Islands said “policies should be discussed, challenged, and reviewed and above all be driven by clear evidence and analysis,” while thanking the OAS for its report which will help inform the future of drug policy.
A representative from the European Union to the OAS General Assembly said that in regions like the Americas and Europe, where the drug problem includes both consumers and producers of drugs, supply-reduction measures must be met with consistent demand-reduction measures. This was echoed throughout the session as a central measure of effective drug policy. The representative of the European Union highlighted this when he stated, “we must leave behind outdated schemes which distinguish between producer and consumer countries.”
The representative from Spain emphasized that it is central to Spain’s drug policy to treat the consumer of drugs, not as a criminal, but as a citizen with the right to health care. Many other delegation representatives reinforced the importance of public health in drug consumption policy in their respective countries, reflecting the OAS Report’s similar emphasis on public health.
Efforts to Promote Human Rights
Another major initiative at the OAS 43rd General Assembly was in the area of human rights, specifically the importance of strengthening the region-wide human rights system. This followed a March 22 special session of the General Assembly in Cochabamba, Bolivia, during which there was a general consensus regarding the need for improvements in the human rights system. Significant progress had been made towards these efforts, particularly in efforts to curb discrimination. On June 6, the General Assembly adopted the Inter-American Convention against Racism, Racial Discrimination, and Related Forms of Intolerance, along with the Inter-American Convention against All Forms of Discrimination and Intolerance. The secretariat also approved a number of resolutions for the protection and promotion of the rights of various groups and included efforts to support civil society organizations that defend human rights.
Throughout the member state discussions, it was consistently pointed out that the issue of human rights is intimately connected to the drug problem in the Americas. Drug trafficking in the region continually results in an increase in violence and criminal activity, which has a direct negative human impact. A representative from El Salvador pointed out that it is important to consider “…the suffering of thousands of families who day after day experience the loss of their loved ones… from human trafficking, extortion…and other crimes associated with the drug problem” when formulating a solution to the drug problem in the Americas.
Parallel Events Present Greater Insight to the General Assembly
Several other events and meetings took place in the context of the General Assembly that also addressed issues surrounding the main discussion of drugs, such as private sector development, social issues, and individual country relations.
For example, the Secretary General of the OAS, the Guatemalan Minister of Foreign Affairs Luis Fernando, and Assistant Secretary General Albert R. Ramdin also held a meeting with representatives of workers, civil society organizations, and the private sector, the eighth of such informal discussions to occur since the first was held at the 37th General Assembly in the Dominican Republic in 2006. The leaders from these sectors spoke out on the drug problem, human rights, and other issues pertinent to the assembly, with a particular focus on social impacts.
There were also several meetings between OAS leaders and various individual country and organization representatives. Secretary General Insulza met informally with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, along with foreign ministers from El Salvador, Panama, Haiti, and Peru, among others, in order to discuss their relationship with the OAS and specific proposals on the drug problem and inter-American human rights efforts.
ALBA Countries withdraw from Inter-American Defense Board
While the 43rd session showed consensus on the need to address the drug problem in innovative ways, there were also some undercurrents of difference. On June 6, four ALBA countries—Nicaragua, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador—announced their withdrawal from the Inter-American Defense Board and requested a restructuring of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in order to ensure against bias. Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elías Jaua claimed that human rights abuses were being unfairly reported by the commission, which, in his view, consistently reported human rights abuses committed against the opposition, while neglecting abuses committed against persons who are pro-government. The decision by the four ALBA countries to withdraw highlights the continuing discord among OAS member states, particularly following their withdrawal last year from the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, a 1947 agreement signed in Rio de Janeiro.
The United States is a Stakeholder in Formulating an Effective Drug Policy
The strategic role of the United States as a member state of the OAS is central to formulating policy to solve the drug problem in the Americas. Secretary of State Kerry served as the chief representative of the United States at the General Assembly, marking his first visit to Latin America since taking office. Kerry is known for having been previously critical of the OAS, and his attendance demonstrates a significant step forward in the United States’ involvement with the organization. A delegation representative of the United States spoke to the General Assembly on June 5 and articulated the United States’ support for an action plan to better address the drug issue “in the spirit of partnership.”
Moreover, on June 5 Secretary of State Kerry had a meeting with Venezuelan Foreign Affairs Minister Jaua, during which the two made a commitment to work towards more open diplomatic relations between the two countries. The reestablishment of relations with Venezuela marks an important step forward for cooperation within the OAS, and is testament to the United States’ renewed interest in strengthening dialogue and relations with the region.
For a more comprehensive analysis of the United States-Venezuela meeting, please click here.
Esma Mneina and Sarah Otis, Research Associates at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs
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