Strengthening Core Values in the Americas: Regional Commitment to Democracy and the Protection of Human Rights

By Lutz, Ellen L. | Houston Journal of International Law, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Strengthening Core Values in the Americas: Regional Commitment to Democracy and the Protection of Human Rights


Lutz, Ellen L., Houston Journal of International Law


I. Introduction

In discussions concerning national sovereignty during this age of regional integration, it is often asserted that, since the end of the Cold War, the Inter-American system has been strengthened by common values such as the importance of democratic political systems, human rights, and liberal economic models. We are poised to explore the depth and permanence of the American nations' commitments to these core values. The current and future effectiveness of the Organization of American States (OAS) cannot be examined without addressing the increased regional confidence in states to retain established democratic political systems. Nor can the regional impact of problems caused by increased drug trafficking be addressed without considering associated human rights and economic issues. Even topics such as trade, environmental protection, intellectual property, and extradition cannot be meaningfully discussed apart from these foundational concerns.

II. The History of Democracy and Human Rights in the Americas

For nearly two centuries a hemispheric consensus has existed on the principle that democracy is the best way to ensure individual liberty and justice and to protect basic human rights.(1) While promotion of democracy was not among the original enumerated purposes in the OAS Charter,(2) the right to political participation was embedded in the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man(3) -- adopted alongside the Charter in 1948. Article 20 of the American Declaration provides that "[e]very person having legal capacity is entitled to participate in the government of his country, directly or through his representatives, and to take part in popular elections, which shall be by secret ballot, and shall be honest, periodic and free."(4) The American Declaration also sets forth other core political rights including freedom of expression,(5) freedom of association,(6) freedom of peaceable assembly,(7) and access to the courts to ensure respect for legal rights.(8)

A decade later, in the wake of the emergence of the Castro regime in Cuba, the members of the OAS met in Santiago and declared: "[h]armony among the American republics can be effective only insofar as human rights and fundamental freedoms and the exercise of representative democracy are a reality within each one of them ...."(9) The Declaration of Santiago enumerates a partial list of the principles and attributes of the democratic system in this hemisphere.(10) First, the rule of law "should be assured by the separation of powers, and by the control of the legality of governmental acts by competent organs of the state."(11) The Declaration of Santiago also lists free elections, the incompatibility of democracy with perpetual power without a fixed term, respect for human rights, effective judicial procedures, freedom of information and expression, and the importance of achieving just and humane conditions for their people by strengthening and developing economic structures.(12) The Declaration of Santiago "permit[s] national and international public opinion to gauge the degree of identification of political regimes and governments with [democratic principles], thus contributing to the eradication of forms of dictatorship, despotism, or tyranny."(13)

In 1985, as country after country throughout the region cast off repressive, rights-abusing military dictatorships and returned to popularly-elected civilian governments,(14) the OAS, through the Protocol of Cartagena de Indias, amended its Charter to declare that "representative democracy is an indispensable condition for the stability, peace and development of the region."(15)

III. The Importance of Democracy

In this post-Cold War era when "[p]olicy nostrums come and go in Washington,"(16) policymakers are promoting democracy as the best means to prevent interstate war.(17) Our increasingly border-porous world is transected not only by multinational corporations and global capital markets but by the mass media, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and transnational issue networks. …

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