The UN and the OAS: There is a choice to be made

Drawing by Margaret Scott
Drawing by Margaret Scott

The current crisis in Honduras could have a profound impact on the future of Central American institutions. As hemispheric players invest their prestige and political clout in the final outcome of the standoff between ousted constitutional President Manuel Zelaya and de facto Interim President Roberto Micheletti, it is apparent that the OAS is showing its profound limitations once again, as has often been the case in the past. At this point in the evolution of the Honduran crisis, the conclusion must be reached at this point that the OAS does not possess the combination of institutional prestige, requisite talent, and the ability to mobilize an end-game strategy, nor does it have sufficient personnel to achieve an effective resolution to heated regional disputes, especially if its individual members are dedicated enough to stand behind it.

Direct involvement of the UN at an early stage in such local disputes, as is now afflicting Honduras, may be necessary. In the halls of the United Nations Security Council, the Latin American representatives selected to occupy the seats set aside for their geographical area should be taking the lead on resolving the current crisis. The opportunity may exist to bring a targeted regional issue to the forefront of international scrutiny. The logic behind this is that the Security Council may be institutionally better equipped to move with expediency, than its usually slower moving OAS counterpart.

The OAS up to this moment has clearly been unable to resolve the present constitutional crisis in Honduras. Although the performance of OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza has been contentious, and even could be deemed as being indefatigable and exemplary, nevertheless the organization under his watch has clearly failed to respond to the challenges posed by the U.S. and its contemptuous treatment by the Honduran de facto regime. The San Jose agreement, reached under the auspices of the OAS, seemed like a feasible portal for a peaceful resolution. Yet, methodological failings of the OAS as an institution have rendered the organization unlikely to succeed. By tolerating the increasing authoritarian intransigence of Micheletti and allowing the misdirected and unenergetic responses of the U.S. to determine the curse of action, the OAS precipitated the present crisis by forcing Zelaya to return to Honduras, a desperate but justifiable decision to confront the international stalemate and the further consolidation of the transgression against Honduran democratic institutions.

The OAS has been unable to make a winning case to the de facto regime that at the moment it is an outcast in the international arena and that the Brazilian embassy must be fully respected and not subject to any threats. The OAS has not been able to win respect for itself as an institution. Despite having all the legal, political and international arguments in favour, it has not been able to reinstall a democratically elected government ousted by a military coup. This is reminiscent of the futility of the organization in the 1970’s and its hypocrisy towards democracy and the rule of law. The OAS Democratic Charter today cannot turn into a soulless document as the OAS foundational charter was in the past. It must be fully respected by the organization and its signatories.

Despite the predictable ineffectiveness and even ineptitude of the OAS, the UN continues to defer to the organization to resolve regional matters. Implicit in this strategy has been a failed expectation that the regional body will stand up and fulfill this responsibility. Only after it has proved to be ineffective has the UN been likely to get involved. On the UN agenda, the Security Council is expected to assert its charter obligations to adjudicate the disputes flaring up in the region, but in practice, the OAS has the first word. By almost automatically entrusting the Honduran crisis to the OAS, the UN further sanctioned the isolation of Latin American affairs as a parochial matter that can be kept from being operational by almost the entire international community.

This leaves the OAS’s disputes to be decided by regional leaders, as well as the intervention of dependable bland mid-level Canadian diplomats and a forceful American influence which often gets its way. While this progression reflects decades of institutionalization of the uncertain relations between international organizations and regional institutions, it is likely to greatly damage the prospect of applying Latin American security procedures and impede placing confrontations on a global agenda. Rarely does a Latin American issue surface on an international agenda or become subject of concern. An example of this exception was the creation of the Brazilian-led Haitian peacekeeping force, MINUSTAH. Traditionally, regional issues have been left marginalized from a global perspective and limited to the purview of the OAS, a tactic consistently pursued by U.S. policy makers. Normally, the UN has no problem in outsourcing its responsibility for collective decision-making to the OAS because it aims to avoid alienating itself from the Washington’s policy preferences and its veto power in the UN Security Council.

The benefits to be gleaned from routine issues being placed on a UN docket are abundant. For example, the bitter environmental dispute between Uruguay and Argentina has the potential to attract earnest counsel from the Nordic nations. These countries are not only keenly concerned with environmental issues but went through a similar experience decades ago with the Norwegian Fisheries in the 1950’s and the North Sea Continental Shelf in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Similarly, the ongoing dispute regarding Colombia’s violations of Ecuadorian sovereignty as a result of cross-border raids parallel the incidents that have occurred in Southern Asia examples include as the South China Sea dispute in the 1990’s and recent incidents involving the Preah Vihear Temple dispute between Cambodia and Thailand which have been effectively dismantled through bilateral and multilateral negotiations. Finally, promoting a greater awareness of contentious Latin American issues in other countries could help create the momentum needed for further institutionalization of the region. These could take the shape of technical partnerships between the newly created UNASUR’s South American Council of Defense, and the far more experienced NATO and ASEAN. This would greatly enhance the institutionalization process array with the renewed cooperation of regional arrangements. Global cooperation between such institutions would encompass the relevant experiences of European, American and Asian nations in similar areas of responsibility in such an important forum as the Security Council.

The UN could, as a matter of fulfilling its mandate to maintain international peace and security, be instrumental when it comes to resolving the current turmoil in Honduras. This is because the UN Charter clearly establishes in article 34 that the Security Council “may investigate any dispute or any situation that may lead to international friction or give rise to a dispute.” This is of utmost importance in the current context involving Honduras, since it has long ceased to be an domestic concern and now involves the sovereign rights of Brazil, the diplomatic immunity of its embassy, and the legal standing of the non-binding declarations by the OAS General Assembly. In the present context, there are clear legal grounds as to why the UN Security Council needs to act without wasting any additional time.

Although involving the UN always comes with the possibility of itself slowing a future collective process dealing with hemispheric issues, the predictable clout of the Security Council could without question enhance the prospects of resolving the conflict such as those now facing Honduras. In the long run, the regional community must start thinking of ways to more effectively facilitate the region’s integration into the international arena when it comes to peaceful resolutions. This endeavor could be pursued by the UN given its unique resources – including a reputation for being effective. The organization has shown it growth over the years, which has strengthened its political will. In the short run, one can hope that the Security Council will act automatically to fulfill its duties and mandates and possibly bring peaceful resolutions beginning with the Honduran crisis. In addition, it is possible that a UN Secretary General, like Ban Ki Moon, is in a more strategic position than the sitting OAS Secretary General, Jose Miguel Insulza.

With the stalemate now facing the Inter-American community regarding the Honduran confrontation, it could very well be that the UN, either through the Security Council or through the personal diplomacy of Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, would be perceived as a more efficient vehicle to handle this now hyper-sensitive subject. At the end of the day, UN’s judgments could be perceived as more objective and therefore more respected by both sides.