March 20, 2003 | WebMemo on International Organizations

What the UN Could Learn from the OAS

It's hard for conservatives to say nice things about international organizations. At best they serve as forums for resolving international disputes and disbursing humanitarian aid. At worst, they consume huge amounts of money, promote ineffective feel-good treaties, and aspire to be super states or unelected world powers.

Of course, the mother of all international organizations is the United Nations - a not so exclusive club of countries created in 1945 that tries to bring together the varied concerns of some 191 states. And therein lies its weakness. There isn't much that unites this disparate collection of democracies, constitutional monarchies, autocracies, and totalitarian dictatorships except a low common denominator of assumed sovereignty and a need to vent.

The recent failure of the United Nations Security Council to deal with the rising threat of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein is a case in point and invites the question of whether or not the organization serves a useful purpose.

A skeptical President George W. Bush gave it a chance to be relevant by encouraging it to pass a measure calling for voluntary Iraqi disarmament backed up with a threat of "serious consequences" in case of non-compliance. But Security Council members with veto power and substantial investments in Iraq-allied behind a meandering inspection process-turned Resolution 1441 into a shell game.

Not that Bush had to go to the Security Council in the first place. Although the UN Charter calls for Council approval for a nation to use force against another, it's not needed in the case of self-defense nor should it prevent any country from acting in the interests of protecting its own citizens. In Saddam's case, it was a matter of time before he might use chemical or biological weapons against neighboring states or facilitate their global deployment through a terrorist group operating from Iraqi soil.

So how do we fix this picture? Perhaps Security Council members and the General Assembly itself might not be so disagreeable if the United Nations stood for something beyond a broad definition of peace and a kitchen sink approach to human rights that clouds the protection of individual liberties behind a host of irrelevant privileges.

That something is embodied in the Charter of the Organization of American States (OAS) that establishes -- in Chapter II, Article 3, paragraph d -- a membership requirement: "the political organization of those States on the basis of the effective exercise of representative democracy."

Democracies generally don't attack democracies, nor threaten each other. Self-determining and sharing a form of government, they have lots more in common than, say, constitutional republics and presidents-for-life. Although accommodating the need to deal with a rogue state may still be difficult in such a forum, it would not be as difficult as defending one's self against the dangerous behavior of a member in good standing.

Granted, the OAS has only recently begun to come into its own. Its Permanent Council and General Assembly still avoid tough issues that touch on sensitivities of member nations. Actions are limited by a small budget, and it has no foreign aid role.

But in recent years, it has provided invaluable support for the institutionalization of elections as a means of determining heads of state in the western hemisphere, and by adopting a new Democratic Charter -- indeed on the very day the United States was attacked by Al Qaeda terrorists -- it dedicated itself to protecting and strengthening representative governance in each member country. And because it is a community of democracies, no member needs veto power to block the excesses of a malevolent faction.

Although in its Millennium Declaration, the UN says that democratic governance best assures human rights, it is no membership requirement. Maybe it's time to raise the bar so that UN members are at least electoral democracies. Perhaps UN conventions, peacekeeping operations, and humanitarian aid could then be put in context-of building durable peace by encouraging government by the governed and by helping non-members to become members.

- Stephen Johnson is Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for international Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Stephen Johnson Senior Policy Analyst
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy