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For a Strong OAS, Choose Leader Wisely

EARLY next year the United States and other Western Hemisphere nations will elect a new secretary-general to head the Organization of American States (OAS), replacing Joao Baena Soares, whose second term ends in June 1994. This election will not only determine, perhaps for an entire decade, the leadership of an increasingly vital organization. It will also say a great deal about the commitment of hemispheric governments to building multilateral cooperation in the Americas.

Largely ignored in the 1970s and 1980s, the OAS has recently enjoyed a remarkable turnabout, starting with its role in monitoring the Nicaraguan elections in April 1990. Since then, the OAS has provided oversight for elections in such troubled settings as Haiti, El Salvador, Paraguay, and Suriname. The organization's mandate was dramatically expanded in June 1991, when it was given responsibility to initiate collective action to repair the democratic order in countries where it is violated. The OAS has s ince mobilized responses in two instances of democratic breakdown - Haiti in August 1991 and Peru in April 1992. Democracy has not yet been restored to either country, but the OAS initiatives went considerably beyond any previous inter-American reactions to military coups or other internal disruptions of democratic rule.

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In its newly active role, the OAS has amply demonstrated the potential contribution that multilateral efforts can make to safeguard democracy. At the same time, however, the organization's weaknesses have also become more visible. The OAS lacks resources and institutional autonomy to carry out its multiple tasks effectively. Unlike such other international agencies as the World Bank, the IMF, or even the United Nations, the OAS has little independent authority; member governments control all major decisi ons. The OAS secretary-general has far less autonomy than his UN counterpart.

O matter how talented and experienced, the next secretary-general will be constrained by these structural shortcomings. Yet a first-rank leader, someone with significant stature, a solid record of achievement, strong management and diplomatic skills, and a clear vision of what the OAS should seek to accomplish, will surely find ways to augment the organization's current capacity and promote needed reforms. By electing a highly regarded secretary-general, OAS governments will also signal renewed commitmen t to the institution and its multilateral purposes, enhance the OAS's reputation, and raise performance expectations. The wrong choice would have the opposite effect.

Unfortunately, the process for selecting the secretary-general is not well-suited to produce the best person. OAS practice rules out the naming of successive secretaries of the same nationality, thereby eliminating candidates from Brazil. The tradition of rotating OAS leadership means candidates from those nations from which previous secretaries were drawn - including Argentina, Ecuador, Uruguay, and Colombia - are at a disadvantage. Also, by tradition, the OAS head must be a Latin American, thus excludi ng aspirants from the US, Canada, and the Caribbean.

Countries lobby hard for their own national candidates, and engage in a good deal of diplomatic horse-trading. Washington often stands aloof, deferring to the Latin American nations. Improving the selection procedures would increase the odds of getting a top-flight secretary-general. The time to do this is at the June meeting of the OAS General Assembly in Nicaragua.

One idea that member states should consider is establishing an independent commission to assist in the search for the secretary-general. Such a commission, composed of widely-respected hemispheric leaders, might be asked to evaluate declared candidates. Or it might be called upon to identify other, stronger candidates who should be urged to put their names forward. Whether a special commission is the right approach or not, OAS member states should seek some mechanism to encourage the best-qualified peopl e to stand as candidates. Even if the time has not yet come to propose a North American candidate to head the OAS, the US government should participate actively in the selection.