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Strong Nation-States Needed for A Robust Inter-American System

If Mexico allowed al-Qaeda to build camps on the Mexico-side of the U.S.-Mexico border, would Mexico really expect the U.S. to sit idly by and do nothing?  Why should Colombia act any differently when dealing with the FARC?

An unreasonable reliance on multilateralism to advance the national interest is a vice. And, like any vice, if not remedied will blind, bind, and mistakes will certainly follow. Stability at all cost is a similar concept. This latter talisman eventually leads a nation down the very path that it sought to avoid in the first place, instability and most certain crises. Blend both of these principles – hyper-focus on multilateralism and stability at all cost – and you will get really bad outcomes. Despite the rhetoric in this town – both public and private – the Western Hemisphere is chock full of examples.

The current state of affairs between the U.S. and Cuba fell victim long ago to the aforementioned politically brackish formula. United Nations-laden Haiti, another prime of example of the adage that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The seemingly never-ending “war against drugs” not only lacks focus, but has spawned new conflicts. The phenomena of the Central American gang or the coming “border wars” at the U.S.-Mexico border. On their own, each of these and other policy challenges directly impact the U.S., yet our response to each has been curiously ambivalent. Rather than take the “bull by the horns,” if you will, and address these matters directly in the U.S. national interest by leading, we govern by consensus.

In other words, we have overly relied on regional and cooperative solutions with countries that can barely keep their own countries in order. From an institutional stand-point, a cursory review will show that most democracies in the Americas are ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of our day mainly because of weak or evolving rule of law systems as well as endemic poverty. While an admirable goal to treat our partners as equals, and we should, the reality is that most countries in the hemisphere are not at par commercially, politically, or militarily. A key to a robust international or regional system is strong nation-states. The inter-American is weak and ineffective because of it and we must not place too much stock in its abilities quite just yet. Consider one of the greatest challenges this day, combating terrorism, and the role of the Organization of American States (“OAS”).

The Inter-American Committee against Terrorism (“CICTE“) of the OAS was created in 1998 to promote and develop cooperation amongst Western Hemisphere nations to prevent, combat, and eliminate terrorism. Created exactly fifty years after the creation of of the OAS in 1948, the CICTE, in addition to studying and harmonizing work in this field with other international entities or regimes such as the United Nations and the International Financial Action Task Force, is supposed to take steps towards:

“ensuring the development of integrated responses to terrorism and to carrying out complementary efforts to prevent and fight terrorism and prosecute those responsible, ensuring the guarantees of due process in accordance with national law.”

While the aforementioned language from the statutory mandate of the CICTE is broad, it is sufficiently clear that it should mean more than traveling throughout the region, hosting meetings, and issuing Declarations every so often. Yet, the latter has been the case since the CICTE was created and is the case with most of what the OAS and its other committees tend to do. In part, the inter-American system is somewhat flawed and in need of reform from the very top. There is little, if any, accountability for how it spends U.S. taxpayer monies. Its accomplishments are significantly outweighed by bureaucratic excesses. They talk, a lot, but action is not part of its lexicon. Why does this happen?

In large measure it is because most countries in OAS have little, if any, real world experiences in dealing effectively with the terrorism issue. Member states also have weak or poorly trained military and law enforcement entities. And when the have acted, it is those very states that have direct experiences with the issue that are treated as the bad guys, not the terrorists or terrorist organizations. They member state may support anti-terrorism declarations at the OAS, but national governments back home sometimes ignore what they signed and end up supporting the very groups the OAS allegedly seeks to crack down on. Consider Colombia’s long struggle against the FARC-People’s Army, a group designated a terrorist organization by the U.S., Canada, and the European Union.

Earlier this year, after years of hard work, intelligence gathering, and loss of life on both sides, the Colombians scored a major victory against the FARC. During a military operations the Colombian government seized a large cache of information stored on several laptops and portable storage devices. INTERPOL has authenticated and stated the data was not tampered with by Colombian officials. It includes FARC operational, administrative, and financial information, and may link the FARC to other nations and groups. During the operation at the Colombia-Ecuador border, the FARC’s number two in command, Raul Reyes, and more than a dozen other terrorists were killed. As usual, the OAS’s response to this matter leaves much to be desired: a lot of talk and there will be no reasonable action or follow through.

The CICTE was the proper entity within the OAS structure to review this matter. Rather than start with a referral to it, Colombia was essentially forced to “apologize” to FARC-supporting Venezuela and Ecuador. In addition, OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza took a delegation to the scene of the military operation. Rather than submit the matter to the CICTE at this juncture, Insulza delegated responsibility to an independent commission. And, as if this were not enough, during an OAS Foreign Affairs Ministers Meeting about the same time that this matter was being considered, foreign ministers rejected “the incursion by Colombian military forces and police personnel” since it, in some rather creative legal interpretation by the Secretary General and his lawyers, violated Articles 19 and 21 of the OAS Charter. What about the FARC and its supporters? Your guess will be as good as any.

The OAS diplomatic kabuki theater on the FARC is a common response to problems in the region. Colombia has shown restraint. If anything, Colombia was justified acting the way it did and customary international law clearly shows it was in the right. Even under the OAS Charter, Colombia was justified pursuant to Article 22 of the Charter which authorizes the use of force in cases of self defense. Rather than support a democracy, the OAS essentially treats Colombia in much the same way that Israel is treated by the Arab League or the U.N. Security Council. Rather than rally to her side, regional powers abscond and shirk responsibility or, the more brazen such as Ecuador and Venezuela, openly support the FARC.

If the OAS were truly interested in dealing with terrorism, the matter should have been reffered to the CICTE for review. Just as the foreign ministers accused Colombia of violating Articles 19 and 21, one can argue that Venezuela and Ecuador have been violating Articles 19, 21, 28 and 29 of the OAS Charter. Both of these countries have provided, or allowed others to provide, aid and comfort to the FARC for decades.

If Mexico allowed al-Qaeda to build camps on the Mexico-side of the U.S.-Mexico border, would Mexico really expect the U.S. to sit idly by and do nothing? So why should Colombia sit idly by when for the past several years the FARC has been allowed to build havens alongside the Ecuador-Colombia, Colombia-Venezuela borders? Venezuela, Ecuador, and other countries such as Cuba, have not only put in jeopardy Colombian democracy, but hurt the collective security of the Andean region through support of the FARC. These serious questions are for CICTE to consider, not some ad hoc commission.

Besides the Cuban Communist Party’s control of Cuba and the war on drugs, the FARC insurgency is one of the longest running problems in the Western Hemisphere. The CICTE was created to address issues such as the FARC. Yet rather than be an active player and carry out its statutory authority to develop “integrated responses to terrorism and to carrying out complementary efforts to prevent and fight terrorism and prosecute those responsible, ensuring the guarantees of due process in accordance with national law,” it is a sidelined committee subject to the whims of the Secretary General. This has happened in large part because there is a fundamental misunderstanding by OAS member nations about the threat terrorism poses to the region and because many of these countries have problems of their own making them ill-equipped to be unbiased, neutral observers.

In a post-09.11.01 world, the CICTE and the OAS can be much more than what it is today, a debate and study group. However, for the process to improve U.S. leadership will be required to scale back the bureaucracy and lead as problem solvers. Until the OAS gets its act together, if ever, the U.S. should partner with regional powers whose interests are aligned with those of the U.S. We should provide them the tools they need to improve rule of law, institutional building, and related programs. Only strong nation-states will provide the solutions needed to many of these problems. If done correctly, there would be no need whatsoever to resort to the OAS since the solutions are driven locally.

As with most things in today’s OAS, and this has been the case for decades, it is more focused more on getting along that it is about finding lasting solutions to regional challenges. And, if that means opposing the U.S., more the better. Rather than help a democracy combat terrorism, it has provided the FARC and its supporters political cover that they will use to keep bolstering international efforts to legitimize the FARC. Again, why should U.S. taxpayers underwrite these proceedings without a direct check by the Congress or the Government Accounting Office (GAO)? The following are some suggestions to get the ball rolling:

Order a Forensic Audit of the OAS

Some say in this town that we should not bother fixing or reforming the place; it is already known as an “irrelevant” organization. Why should Americans care about what the OAS says and what it does? Well, this may be so but running from a problem is not the American way. For starters, U.S. taxpayers fund the organization to the tune of about close to $100 million a year. What are they doing with that money? That is close to 60 percent of the regular funds needed to run it annually. We also also make additional contributions to special OAS programs on a case-by-case basis and support many OAS-driven program through other appropriation funding streams. We need to know how it has been spent or will be spent.

Amend the OAS Rules and Grant CICTE Oversight Authority

In the future, organizations within the OAS system need oversight powers independent of the Secretary General. Just as the U.S. Congress provides for clear and independent oversight powers through the Congressional committee system, so should the OAS structure a process whereby the “committees” of jurisdiction are given real authorities to deal with problems as they arise, such as the Colombia matter. A transparent, rule-focused process will help remove regional biases and politicking by the Office of Secretary General and, if properly implemented, should provide the CICTE with the means to carry out its stated mission. Until then, it is but another debating group subject to the political whims of the Secretary General.

Develop a Listing Process for Terrorist Organizations, Crime Syndicates, and Bad Persons

The CICTE should immediately begin to develop a terrorist listing process that mirrors listing regimes in use by many countries and international organizations. This inter-American listing process must include clear variables that will not allow exclusion of parties from the list because diplomats disagree if a group is a terrorist organization or an insurgency. For example, as is the case with the FARC today where several countries in Latin America do not consider them a terrorist entity. Independent of this, the U.S. should encourage member states to develop national listing processes of their own, with severe penalties enforced by national judicial systems.

CICTE Should Hold Hearings About the State of Terror in the Western Hemisphere

As its first order of immediate business the CICTE should also be empowered to study closely the FARC matter and how it has damaged Colombian democracy and regional stability. Using data found by Colombia at a FARC terrorist camp in Ecuador in March 2008, the CICTE should also determine who has been assisting the FARC and if there has been any assistance from outside of the hemisphere. An exhaustive accounting of regional hot spots is also in order and the CICTE staff should prepare an annual report on these issues, in addition to already required reporting.

Finally, independent of the inter-American process, the U.S. should take a lead role in resolving some of the more pressing challenges in the hemisphere. The next President should make every effort to re-focus how the U.S. operates in the Americas by putting our national interests ahead of all else. An over-reliance on regional systems and weak national states will not be the solution.

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