Assistant Secretary General Speech


October 4, 2016 - George Washington University Elliot School of International Affairs

Ms. Paula Alonso, Director of the Elliott School's Latin America and Hemispheric Studies program

Mr. Mark Langevin, Director of the Elliott School's Brazil Initiative

Dean Reuben Brigety, Dean of the Elliot School

Ladies and Gentlemen

Good evening:

I count it an honor and a pleasure to be here with you this evening to discuss the relevance of the OAS in promoting a hemispheric agenda.  It is indeed a privilege to stand before an audience of present and future leaders of our many countries, and to share with you the tremendous role that the OAS plays in the hemisphere, how it helps to promote the agenda of the region and how its many projects, initiatives and undertakings touch directly on the lives of so many people in the Americas, and in many instances, on the lives of the most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters.

I wish to thank George Washington University for extending an invitation to join you here this evening. It is always a pleasure to return to my Alma Mater as not too long ago I was a student at GWU pursing a Master’s Degree in International Policy and Practice.  The valuable insights, depth of knowledge, and leadership skills I received from the faculty of the Elliot School of International Affairs have been invaluable tools that have helped me grow professionally and pursue a life of public service and international affairs serving as Minister Counsellor at the Embassy of Belize in various countries, then as Ambassador in Washington, D.C., and now as Assistant Secretary General of the Organization of American States.

As many of you may know, I am from Belize, a Central American country with deep-rooted ties to the Caribbean. Prior to being elected to this post, I served for over seven years as the Ambassador of Belize in the United States of America and before the OAS, during which time I pursued issues of importance to the Caribbean, Central America and the hemisphere on a whole. So I am very familiar with the organization from the perspective of member States and I can attest to the utter seriousness and dedication with which member States struggle for consensus and agreement on the complex and sensitive issues that manifest themselves on our Americas of today. The main goal is always to ensure that any decision reached would have a positive impact on the everyday lives of the peoples of the Americas.  This is what the OAS stands for.

It is against this backdrop that I address you today on the role of the OAS in promoting a hemispheric agenda and responding to the needs of the citizens of the hemisphere.  I will first provide you with an overview of the OAS and then discuss our work and how this helps to promote a hemispheric agenda.

The OAS in Promoting a Hemispheric Agenda

Established in 1948, the OAS is the world’s oldest regional organization and the only hemispheric entity comprised of the 35 independent nations of the hemisphere, with active participation of 34 member states.  Its work is based on 4 main pillars:  Human Rights, Democracy, Multi-Dimensional Security, and Integral Development.  I list these topics in no particular order as they each carry equal weight, require the same level of attention, and are all mutually reinforcing.  I will repeat: the OAS has four pillars and all of them are equally important!!

I emphasize this equality because these pillars span the gamut of challenges facing our hemisphere. They cover issues of discrimination and marginalization, free and fair elections, transnational organized crime, poverty and income inequality, access to quality education and adequate healthcare, in addition to topics such as migration, renewable energy, and climate change, just to name a few.  These 4 pillars are all intertwined and interconnected: We cannot have a stable democracy without development, development cannot occur in the absence of human rights, and full rights will never be attained amidst insecurity and instability. 

There is no question that the OAS today is the main hemispheric platform for political dialogue which addresses the most pressing issues facing the hemisphere.  Our organization operates on the basis of mandates determined by Member States, and these mandates largely reflect the pressing needs of the region.

The OAS agenda is set through two principal fora: one, the OAS General Assembly, a yearly meeting of Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the Hemisphere and which constitutes the highest decision-making body of the organization; and two, through Ministerial-level meetings that occur throughout the year on a range of topics including sustainable development, labor, social and economic development, culture, and education, among others.  This Ministerial level mechanism provides the OAS with a unique advantage since it convenes policy makers and provides a locus for high level dialogue and decision making to solve the problems we confront as a region.  Those decisions are then included in and executed through the work programs of the organization.  This is one of the important ways that the OAS contributes to promoting a hemispheric agenda in benefit of the peoples of the Americas.

The OAS and Integration Processes:

However, the OAS does not operate in a vacuum.  We form part of a complex and often overlapping web of organizations and other regional groupings, and we are trying very hard to rationalize our relationships so that our work becomes complementary rather than competitive – after all, we all serve the same constituents, with the difference being that the membership of these sub-regional organizations are subsets of the OAS wider membership. In recent years we have seen new alliances and partnerships emerge, including the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our America (ALBA), and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), to name a few. Others such as the Common Market of the South (MERCOSUR) in South America, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) in the Caribbean, and the Central American Integration System (SICA), all established to promote economic integration, cooperation, and coordinate foreign policy, have delivered tangible benefits to their members for decades.

I am a firm believer that regional integration, at any level, can help advance these objectives and bring prosperity to the peoples of the Americas.   Within that context, today, the OAS remains committed to collaboration and partnerships and is singularly positioned to promote consensus building and the sharing of best practices.

The role of the Organization as a convener and a forum for regular, high-level dialogue on issues facing the hemisphere is one of its major strengths, and its configuration enables each Member State to carry equal political weight with one country, one vote.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me share some examples of how the OAS promotes this hemispheric agenda through its four main pillars.


The ending of the cold war and the advent of a multi-polar international system saw democracy flourish throughout the hemisphere. This new era of the OAS was most evidenced in the adoption of the Inter-American Democratic Charter in 2001.  This landmark document defines the essential elements of democracy, indicates ways in which it can and should be promoted, and specifies how it should be defended when compromised.

Democratization in the hemisphere over the last 30 years has resulted in the establishment of legislative and democratic institutions which support regular, free, fair, and transparent elections. Without a doubt, today we have more democracies than what existed a quarter of a century ago, yet we still face dangerous challenges to democratic governance in a few countries.

As a hemispheric body, the OAS has the tools and convening capability to address political crises when they arise.  During these crucial moments, OAS member states meet in the Permanent Council, which is comprised of the Ambassadors, to collectively assess the situation and decide on the necessary diplomatic actions to help the affected member state prevent, manage or resolve any possible disruptions to its democratic order. Invariably, the OAS is called upon to deal with many complex and sensitive political problems in the Americas.   

One of the tools at our disposal for promoting and protecting democracy in the Americas is the Electoral Observation Missions, which have become a key instrument in the promotion and defense of democracy. Such initiatives work to guarantee the integrity, impartiality, and accountability of electoral processes, as well as to strengthen the credibility of democratic institutions.  Since 1962, the OAS has observed over 200 electoral processes in 26 countries throughout the Americas.  These include plebiscites, general, presidential, parliamentary, and municipal elections.

It is worth noting that, at the invitation of the United States Government, the OAS will for the first time in its history observe the Elections in this country in November.  This Electoral Observation Mission will be led by the former President of Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla. So far in 2016 the OAS has deployed 8 Missions, and in addition to the U.S. Mission, the OAS will be present at elections to take place in Haiti later this month.

The OAS also plays an important role in preventing conflicts and finding peaceful solutions to regional and boundary disputes such as between Belize and Guatemala. When called upon, the OAS also carries out special missions to address specific political or institutional crises in the Americas.

Notable and recent instances include:

  • Haiti-Dominican Republic:
    In recent years, controversial court rulings and laws renewed tensions between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.  As a result of new immigration laws, thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent faced deportation. In 2015, an OAS Mission, comprised of Ambassadors and OAS technical staff, was dispatched to the Dominican Republic and Haiti to gather information on the situation of Haitian migrants and to report back to the OAS Permanent Council. The mission recommended establishing mechanisms for dialogue between the two countries in order to address the impasse.  This has helped to ease tensions between the neighboring countries.
  • Honduras:
    At the request of the Government of Honduras, an agreement was signed this year to establish the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH), which aims to support and strengthen Honduras’ justice system and its mechanisms for preventing and combating corruption and impunity. This Mission stands out as an innovative and emblematic initiative and an example of how the OAS supports its member states in their fight against corruption.
  • Colombia:
    For more than a decade, the OAS has been lending support to the Colombian State’s peace policy through its Mission to Support the Peace Process in Colombia (MAPP-OAS). The Organization’s work has focused on monitoring areas and communities affected by the armed conflict, forced recruitment, and the presence of anti-personnel mines, among other important long-term objectives.

    Just last week in Colombia, the Secretary General of the OAS, Luis Almagro, signed an agreement to expand the organization’s mandate to support the peace process.  Continuing our work that began in 2004, the Mission will now focus its efforts on monitoring the ongoing challenges, risks, and threats posed to peaceful co-existence in this post-conflict era. We are fully aware of the results of the referendum, and the OAS remains resolute in our commitment to helping the people of Colombia achieve the peace they have been yearning for so long.
  • Venezuela
    The issue of Venezuela has also featured in the agenda of the OAS Permanent Council over the last few months, and we hope that the offers of mediation and the calls for dialogue eventually help to resolve the situation confronting that Member State.

    These are but a few recent examples of how the Organization has been firmly engaged throughout the Americas in promoting peace and democracy.  But most certainly, no society can truly be democratic without the respect for fundamental freedoms and human rights. 


As I mentioned earlier, defending human rights is one of the 4 main pillars of the organization.  This is mostly carried out through two key OAS institutions: the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which both provide recourse to citizens who have suffered violations of their rights by the state. 

For decades, the Commission on Human Rights has advocated for justice and defending freedom throughout the Americas.  It is comprised of seven members who act independently and do not represent any member state. They are elected by the OAS General Assembly for four-year terms.  The Commission’s independence is a key aspect of its effectiveness, strength, and success. It is supported by a large team of professionals headquartered in our Washington, DC Secretariat.

The Commission has played a vital role in shaping government policies, laws and engendering constitutional reforms. Its recommendations have led states to modify sentencing procedures, eliminate discriminatory laws and strengthen protections of basic rights. Without a doubt, the Commission has helped thousands of citizens and protected democratic freedoms throughout the entire region.


The OAS has undertaken a multidimensional approach to addressing the modern security agenda of its member states. This approach recognizes traditional challenges, as well as new threats, and focuses on stemming the tide of transnational organized crime, fighting terrorism, and improving public safety.

To promote the hemispheric agenda on security, the Organization provides a number of wide-ranging technical and legal assistance programs to strengthen the human resource and institutional capacities of its member states.   Ladies and gentlemen, I wish to highlight a few examples of how, through this inter-governmental cooperation, the OAS has contributed in advancing the objectives of the modern security agenda.

  • Public Security
    Criminal gangs are now increasingly involved in transnational organized crime activities such as the drug trade, illegal arms trade, and human trafficking. Through our public security programs, the OAS is supporting stepped-up law enforcement and increased implementation of prevention strategies; including creating job opportunities and greater training and educational opportunities for young people. The OAS also provides technical and legal assistance to member states such as training for police, prosecutors and judges on special investigative techniques; witness protection programs; and the effective functioning of the accusatorial criminal justice system.
  • Humanitarian Mine Action
    The OAS has had great success in its efforts to reduce and, ultimately eliminate the threat posed by anti-personnel landmines in our hemisphere.  The activities developed within the humanitarian demining program include: destruction of stockpiles and reestablishing safe and secure living conditions for mine-affected populations.  This program contributes to confidence-building measures by facilitating the exchange of information between national military forces and local communities, and between neighboring countries that share mine-filled borders. In the last year alone, support was provided to more than 140 Colombian, Peruvian, and Ecuadorian mine victims to assist with their physical and psychological rehabilitation and socio-economic reintegration into society.
  • Terrorism
    The Inter-American Committee against Terrorism (CICTE) is the leading organization within the Inter-American system to fight terrorism.  As terrorist acts continue to occur throughout the world, and also within our hemisphere, our member states have realized the importance of being prepared.  As a response, the OAS has taken a capacity-building approach to addressing terrorism-related issues; this includes conducting extensive training throughout the region in areas such as maritime and port security, the detection of fraudulent documents, and the creation of response teams to handle incidents involving cyber-crime.
  • Drugs
    The Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) has played a leading role in helping countries deal with the enormous problems, including supply and demand.


The development pillar is arguably one of the most all-encompassing and transversal. Integral Development, as it is defined in the work of the OAS, encapsulates economic and social development; sustainable development; human development, and education and employment. 

The backbone of any society is its people.  Our challenge is to ensure that our people are employed, educated, and have access to economic opportunities that enable them to achieve their full potential of economic fortitude, political stability, and social cohesion.  Some of the most pressing development issues include poverty, inequality, migration, social inclusion, renewable energy, water resources, and the future of our youth, just to name a few.

The OAS has two primary roles to play in the development arena. On a political level, it promotes dialogue among the member states and forges consensus on how to best address the complex problems of poverty by raising the levels of development in the region. The OAS also collaborates with other international organizations and social partners to coordinate programs and mobilize resources for development driven projects.

As with the other pillars, it would be impossible to speak on all the programs being implemented, so I will only summarize a few important initiatives.

  • Poverty, inequality, social inclusion, and migration

It is no secret that our hemisphere is the most unequal in the world.  While not the poorest, close to 43% of the population lives in poverty and many are socially excluded.   These push-pull factors of poverty, inequality, and social exclusion, have led to the surge in migration across the hemisphere.  This is normally compounded by economic conditions such as rise in fuel prices and cost of food, which force persons to migrate in search of better living standards.  Given the urgency of this situation, the OAS has played a crucial role in addressing the topic of migration.  One highly successful initiative is the Continuous Reporting System on International Migration in the Americas (SICREMI), which is the only hemispheric benchmark providing information on migration flows, regulatory frameworks, programs and policies of countries in the hemisphere.  It has been well received by member states as a tool for building dialogue and cooperation among countries in the Americas.

  • Energy Security in the Americas

Sustainable Development in Latin America and the Caribbean is closely linked with energy consumption. Enhanced access to energy has supported improvements in the quality of life of millions of people in the region. However, millions more, particularly the poor and those living in off-grid communities are without access to affordable electricity and continue to rely on energy sources that compromise their health and jeopardize the environment. Additionally, the region’s continuing heavy dependence on fossil fuel imports has pushed the price of electricity to levels that challenge many households and the competitiveness of the region’s predominantly small and medium sized companies.

The Governments of OAS Member States are aware that the current energy paradigm needs to be changed to adequately respond to the challenge of supplying reliable and affordable energy to their populations as well as addressing the challenges posed by climate variability and climate change. Several countries in the region, including Colombia and Venezuela have experienced a drastic reduction in river and reservoirs levels which in turn has affected their hydro-electricity capabilities.

The OAS has responded to this call through the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA), which seeks to strengthen the capacity of Member States to formulate and implement sustainable, climate-friendly, energy policies, strategies and programs.

  • Water Diplomacy in the Americas

Over the last 50 years, the OAS has been promoting integrated water management as a fundamental platform for economic growth. Countries like United States, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Jamaica, and Argentina are a small sample of successful programs in the Americas.
The challenges for water security in the Americas are tremendous. We are witnessing exponential growth of urbanism in Latin America which is placing considerable stress on water availability. The World Bank estimates that by year 2050, 550% more energy will be needed to satisfy demand. This means that 360% more water will be used by the sector to satisfy this demand. This is a frightening statistic that calls for urgent action at all levels in all areas.

The Americas has almost half the water of the world, but it is not evenly distributed. To address this matter, the OAS sees the need to move toward a more integral approach for developing infrastructure for multiple uses and benefits. To this end, the OAS has started a dialogue on the nexus between water and energy. The first of these dialogues was held in Panama earlier this year while the second will be held in Barbados.

Also, we have been working with our Member States and partners on improving our knowledge and understanding of transboundary water, particularly aquifers as well as in the management of transboundary river basins. Over the past 3 years we have been helping to strengthen transboundary cooperation among the governments of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay to ensure the proper management of shared water resources of the basin within the context of climate variability and climate change, while capitalizing on development opportunities.

  • Youth

A topic of great importance to my office is that related to our youth. You will notice that within our hemisphere, the youth comprise the majority of our populations. This brings to mind an old Japanese proverb that says “When you are dying of thirst, it is too late to start digging a well.”  This is a most appropriate exhortation since we need to have greater investments in developing the potential of our youth from now.  In ten years, those children that are now twelve years of age will be twenty-two, and we will expect them to be responsible citizens and diligent and productive members of our work force.  To make sure this happens, we need to make the investments today!!  The youth are not just our future, they are our present.   Ensuring that they are well equipped to become active and engaged citizens is a priority for our Organization and one of my strongest convictions.  We must continue to work towards providing greater access to higher education and economic opportunities to all of our young men and women.  The Summit of the Americas process has given impetus to the importance of fostering entrepreneurship, leadership, and innovation among young people as a path to create employment, combat poverty, and promote integral development. The OAS has responded to this need through the Young Americas Business Trust (YABT) which works with the most vulnerable sectors of the population, including young migrants, indigenous people, women, and residents of rural communities. It promotes youth participation in economic activity through the creation of new businesses, and has made it possible for thousands of young people to receive training in entrepreneurship and business development.


Ladies and gentlemen:

The OAS is instrumental in promoting the hemispheric agenda through its multiple initiatives undertaken in response to the needs of member States. Our organization touches the life of millions of people in the Americas every day, from promoting the right to identity of children by ensuring they are duly registered where they are born through the Universal Civil Registries Project, to assisting young entrepreneurs with training to realize their dreams of developing their businesses through the Small Business Development Centers project, from assisting governments to meet the challenges of governance by providing them with Model Legislation, to training social workers to provide basic assistance to persons with drug dependencies in places where specialized services are absent, and in many other ways that do not make the news.    

As you have seen, much progress continues to be made toward bringing the Hemisphere closer to the ideal of collective action. I am proud that the OAS has and continues to play a central role in the promotion of so many important causes in our hemisphere while remaining committed to delivering tangible benefits to the peoples we serve. We recognize that as societies evolve so do the issues and challenges that surround them. As a hemispheric organization, the OAS must also adapt to these changing times and devise strategies that have the greatest impact on the greatest majority.  There remains much to be done and we look ahead with optimism and resolute determination.

I close with a quote from President George Washington, “Observe good faith and justice towards all Nations. Cultivate peace and harmony with all.”   - September 19, 1796

Thank you for your attention.  I look forward to your questions.