By Sarah Galbenski
For Foreign Service officers wanting to serve at a United States embassy while still living in Washington, the U.S. Mission to the Organization of American States (OAS) is an ideal post. The U.S. Mission is the only one of its kind located in the nation’s capital and one of only two that are located stateside. It is structured much like an overseas embassy, with an ambassador nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate; a senior Foreign Service officer serving as deputy chief of mission; separate political and development sections; a senior advisor for public affairs, congressional outreach, and democracy programs; and its own administrative officer. The OAS brings together all 34 independent states of the Americas and is the preeminent multilateral forum in the Western Hemisphere. The U.S. Mission to the OAS works closely with nearly every office in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs (WHA), a variety of interagency partners, and other member states to address regional opportunities and challenges. Whether playing the lead role or supporting the work of other offices and agencies, the U.S. Mission has a seat at the table on most regional policy issues in the Americas.
While the OAS traces its roots back to the First International Conference of American States held in Washington in 1889–1890, the OAS in its current form came to fruition in 1948 with the signing of the Charter of the OAS in Bogotá, Colombia. The organization is based on four main pillars laid out in its Charter: democracy, human rights, development, and security. Within the U.S. Mission, dedicated staff members devote themselves to the promotion of each of these pillars. The U.S. Mission’s staff is well-balanced between Civil Service and Foreign Service officers, which ensures that the U.S. Mission possesses strong institutional memory while also staying open to fresh perspectives from the field. Due to its multilateral nature, it plays a role in every prominent regional issue, creating portfolios for its officers that are wide-ranging and dynamic.
The work of the democracy pillar of the U.S. Mission is grounded in the Inter-American Democratic Charter (IADC), which was adopted at the Special General Assembly meeting in Lima, Peru, on Sept. 11, 2001, with an aim to strengthen and uphold democratic institutions in the Americas. Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell signed the IADC before returning to the United States to attend to the terrorist attacks that had occurred on American soil that same day. With democracy and human rights under threat—or extinguished entirely—in places such as Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba, the IADC is as relevant today as it was when it was adopted two decades ago.
Much of the U.S. Mission’s efforts remain focused on strengthening democracy in the region. At the OAS General Assembly—its annual meeting of foreign ministers—in October 2020, the U.S. Mission worked with like-minded countries to negotiate a resolution that laid out the conditions and timeline for determining whether the following year’s elections in Nicaragua would meet international standards. The resolution passed a measure that created a framework for the OAS to assist Nicaragua with election preparations and identified milestones it would have to meet. In June 2021, the U.S. Mission spearheaded efforts to pass a resolution through the Permanent Council of the OAS that condemned the arrest, harassment, and arbitrary restrictions placed on presidential candidates, political parties, and independent media in Nicaragua and urged the Ortega-Murillo regime to implement measures to promote transparent, free, and fair elections take place in November 2021. The resolution was approved with 26 of 34 votes—a wide margin by OAS standards—and it was made possible by the tireless efforts of the U.S. Mission, colleagues throughout WHA, and U.S. embassies in the field. The U.S. Mission engaged other OAS member states in Washington and in their capitals to underscore the importance of pressing the Ortega-Murillo regime in Nicaragua to meet its commitments under the IADC.
“This was an extraordinary opportunity to lead an interagency, multilateral, and high-level effort working with every regional embassy and Permanent Mission to the OAS to achieve the important objective of pushing Nicaragua to hold free and fair elections,” said Acting Political Counselor Rachel Owen.
Whether or not this will come to pass remains to be seen.
The OAS also assists member states with political transitions. At the invitation of the government of Haiti in June 2021, OAS sent a “good offices” mission to Haiti to meet then-President Jovenel Moïse and more than 50 interlocutors from the opposition, civil society, religious groups, and businesses to encourage political compromise and legislative and presidential elections in 2021. The OAS mission included representatives from Canada, Costa Rica, Ecuador, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and the United States. The OAS mission made three recommendations, including that Moïse appoint a new prime minister, which he did prior to his assassination, July 7. The new prime minister, Ariel Henry, is now leading the organization for new elections.
Election observation is a key element of OAS efforts to strengthen democracy and democratic institutions in the hemisphere. The OAS enjoys a longstanding reputation for impartiality and technical competence in election observation, with evolving, stringent standards. Democracy starts with clean and fair elections, and OAS today is viewed throughout the world as a reliable force for democracy, with election observation a major part of that success. The OAS has successfully observed presidential, legislative, regional, and special elections throughout the hemisphere including elections in the United States.
Just as the OAS pillar of democracy is grounded in the IADC, the pillar of human rights is rooted in the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man. This declaration was the genesis of the inter-American human rights system, which is comprised of a court and a commission that work in tandem to promote and protect human rights in the Americas. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) is a principal and autonomous body of the OAS, composed of seven independent commissioners from the Americas. Although not party to the court, the United States engages actively with the IACHR and values its contributions to the hemisphere. Under the Biden-Harris administration, the U.S. government has reengaged in the IACHR’s public hearings in order to demonstrate a renewed commitment to the inter-American human rights system.
The U.S. Mission’s human rights officer serves as a central conduit between the IACHR, Missions to the OAS, civil society, the interagency, and Department of State stakeholders.
“Covering this portfolio region-wide, no two days are ever alike—political flashpoints pop up continuously, and often involve serious threats to human rights,” said Human Rights Officer Amanda Hickman.
One way the United States can work to improve the human rights situation in the hemisphere is through nominating a U.S. candidate to serve as a commissioner on the IACHR. The next election is slated to occur in November 2021, and the U.S. has nominated Alexandra Huneeus, J.D., Ph.D., a law professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison whose scholarship focuses on human rights law with an emphasis on Latin America. Born in Chile, Huneeus is the first Latina candidate put forward by the U.S. for IACHR. The U.S. Mission is running a robust campaign that officially launched in May 2021. They have held a civil society roundtable on human rights in the hemisphere in which Department leaders and Huneeus were able to listen to the concerns of prominent civil society actors, demonstrating that the United States is reengaging in the dialogue surrounding human rights in the region. With five IACHR candidates and only three open seats, it will be a competitive race, but the U.S. Mission is confident Huneeus’ impressive scholarship and interpersonal and leadership skills will propel her candidacy forward.
The OAS and the U.S. Mission also promote inclusive and sustainable economic, social, and human development. This work is carried out within the Inter-American Council for Integral Development (CIDI), an OAS body that fosters cooperation among member states in the realm of sustainable development to address issues of poverty and inequality. In alignment with CIDI’s purpose, the U.S. Mission advances specific development programs in targeted areas such as energy, education, and entrepreneurship. For example, the U.S. Mission co-organizes the Americas Competitiveness Exchange (ACE), a biannual weeklong program that allows top global and regional leaders to visit innovation hubs in the Americas and build a strong entrepreneurial network. In August 2021, ACE was hosted in Colorado under strict COVID-19 protocols, and it was the first OAS event to be held in person since the beginning of the pandemic.
“ACE Colorado was a critical exchange for the region to share knowledge and advance collaboration opportunities with key stakeholders as well as to rebuild strategic networks to help overcome the challenges caused by the pandemic and the resulting downturn taken by our economies,” said Deputy Development Counselor Julianna Aynes-Neville. “The organizers, particularly the OAS, the U.S. Department of Commerce, Team Colorado, and the U.S. Mission, set the foundation for the reestablishment of critical trade and development networks. The ACE network is all about collaboration and innovation, and by putting these practices to work in organizing ACE Colorado, our expectations regarding the richness of efforts to connect our region’s economies were far exceeded,” Aynes-Neville continued.
ACE is an example of how the U.S. Mission aims to promote economic, social, and human development that is both inclusive and sustainable.
In 1995, OAS created the Committee on Hemispheric Security to demonstrate its commitment to addressing crime, violence, terrorism, drug trafficking, and transnational organized crime. The committee was also created to develop confidence and security-building measures among states.
“The OAS has provided the United States a premier forum and important mechanism for promoting hemispheric security by advancing legal norms and political commitments in a consensus manner among 34 member states,” said the current Dean of OAS Representatives and U.S. Mission Senior Advisor for Hemispheric Security Giovanni Snidle.
In June 2021, the U.S. chaired the OAS’s Third Meeting of National Authorities on Transnational Organized Crime (TOC). At this high-level meeting, participating states drafted a hemispheric strategy against TOC, which will be adopted at the OAS General Assembly in November.
Additionally, the OAS is increasingly placing climate action within its hemispheric security portfolio. In July 2021, the Committee on Hemispheric Security discussed a multidimensional approach to advancing disaster resilience in the hemisphere, particularly in the Caribbean. The meeting highlighted the nature and effects of disasters in the region and advocated for advancing the Paris Agreement, implementing the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, and effectively mobilizing resources from the international community.
Within the Department, the U.S. Mission to the OAS is at the nexus of every key issue facing the Western Hemisphere today. The U.S. Mission’s aim is to leverage its multilateral connections at the OAS to complement the important work that is done at embassies in the region, and at regional desks in Washington. Ultimately, the U.S. Mission strives to build strong relationships with hemispheric partners in order to promote U.S. foreign policy and ensure that the U.S. can be the best neighbor it can be.
Sarah Galbenski is an intern at the U.S. Mission to the Organization of American States.