Organization of American States (OAS)

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Organization of American States (OAS)

The Organization of American States (OAS) is the world's oldest regional organization, whose antecedents can be traced to the First International Conference of American States, held in Washington, D.C., from October 1889 to April 1890. The participants at that gathering set up the Bureau of American Republics, which by 1910 had evolved into the Pan-American Union (PAU). For half a century the PAU provided an arena in which to establish the legal conventions and agreements underlining inter-American economic, social, and cultural collaboration. The experiences of the Great Depression and World War II led to a strengthening of inter-American cooperation and a general agreement for stronger multilateral response to the threats to peace and security in the Americas. To address these mutual concerns, the Ninth International Conference of American States, held in Bogotá, Colombia, in 1948, adopted the Charter of the OAS. The charter was subsequently amended by the Protocol of Buenos Aires, signed in 1967, which established the subsequent structure of the OAS General Secretariat, and by the Protocol of Cartagena de Indias, signed in 1985, which strengthened its political role in the hemisphere. The Protocol of Washington, which renewed the commitment of the member states to the strengthening, defense, and promotion of representative democracy and human rights in the hemisphere, was signed in 1992, to take effect upon ratification by two-thirds of the member states.

The technical-cooperation activities of the OAS received a powerful impulse with the declaration of the Alliance for Progress in 1961. The OAS effectively executed the multilateral development projects of the alliance and, more importantly, of programs developed as a result of the alliance that continued for decades after its demise. Since its creation, the OAS has been the regional international organization most active in conflict resolution and in dealing with low-violence disputes and internal conflicts. It has monitored human rights and, since 1988, elections.

Since the revision of its charter in 1985, the OAS has been increasingly involved in the peaceful resolution of conflicts, the process of social reconciliation, and the promotion of democracy. The OAS has based its efforts on respect for the sovereignty of, recognition of the equality of, and the principle of nonintervention in the internal affairs of member states. Given these precepts, the OAS did not sanction the U.S. interventions in Grenada (1983) and Panama (1989).

In 1994, the OAS had thirty-five member states: Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Saint Christopher-Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, the United States, Uruguay, and Venezuela. In addition, the organization has granted permanent observer status to twenty-nine states as well as the European Economic Community.

The basic purposes of the OAS are: (1) to strengthen the peace and security of the continent; (2) to promote and consolidate representative democracy, with due respect for the principle of nonintervention; (3) to prevent possible causes of difficulties and to ensure the peaceful settlement of disputes among the member states; (4) to provide for common action in the event of aggression; (5) to seek the solution of political, juridical, and economic problems among member states; (6) to promote, by cooperative action, economic, social, and cultural development; and (7) to achieve an effective limitation of conventional weapons that will make it possible to devote the largest amount of resources to the economic and social development of the member states.

The OAS accomplishes its goals through the following organs: the General Assembly; the Meeting of Consultation of Ministers of Foreign Affairs; the Permanent Council; the Inter-American Economic and Social Council; the Inter-American Council for Education, Science, and Culture; the Inter-American Juridical Committee; the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights; the General Secretariat; and specialized conferences and organizations and other entities established by the General Assembly.

The General Assembly holds regular sessions once a year. Under special circumstances it meets in special session. The Meeting of Consultation is convened to consider urgent matters of common interest and to serve as Organ of Consultation under the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (Rio Treaty), the main instrument for joint action in the event of aggression. The Permanent Council deals with matters that are entrusted by the General Assembly or the Meeting of Consultation and implements the decisions of both organs when their implementation has not been assigned to any other body. It also monitors the maintenance of friendly relations among the member states and the observance of the standards governing operations of the General Secretariat, and it acts provisionally as Organ of Consultation under the Rio Treaty. The purpose of the other two councils is to promote cooperation among the member states in their respective areas of competence. These councils hold one annual meeting and meet in special sessions when convoked in accordance with the procedures provided for in the charter. The General Secretariat is the central and permanent organ of the OAS. The headquarters of both the Permanent Council and the General Secretariat are in Washington, D.C. The secretary general of the OAS is elected to a five-year term by the General Assembly.

See alsoInter-American Organizations; Pan-Americanism; United States-Latin American Relations.


Carnegie Endowment For International Peace, Division of International Law, International Conferences of American States, 3 vols. (1934, 1940, 1954).

Inter-American Institute of International Legal Studies, The Inter-American System (1966).

John E. Fagg, Pan Americanism (1982).

Organization of American States, Charter of the Organization of American States (1992).

Additional Bibliography

Bouvier, Virginia Marie. The Globalization of U.S.-Latin American Relations: Democracy, Intervention, and Human Rights. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002.

Cooper, Andrew Fenton, and Thomas Legler. Intervention without Intervening? The OAS Defense and Promotion of Democracy in the Americas. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

Marichal, Carlos. México y las conferencias panamericanas, 1889–1938: Antecedentes de la globalización. Mexico: Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores, 2002.

Shaw, Carolyn M. Cooperation, Conflict, and Consensus in the Organization of American States. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Sheinin, David. Beyond the Ideal: Pan Americanism in Inter-American Affairs. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000.

                                      James Patrick Kiernan

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Organization of American States (OAS)

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Organization of American States (OAS)