Address by Minister of State Ablonczy at Inter-American Democratic Charter Commemoration Event

No. 2011/28 - Valparaíso, Chile - September 5, 2011

Check Against Delivery

I am delighted to be here today in the historic and beautiful city of Valparaíso to participate in this event. Before beginning, I would like to extend my sincerest thanks to the Government of Chile for having offered to host us all here today on this important occasion.

A decade following its signature in Lima, the Inter-American Democratic Charter continues to stand as one of the hemisphere’s most remarkable collective achievements.

The charter was the culmination of a lengthy process that included many important landmarks along the way, including the Santiago Commitment to Democracy and the Renewal of the Inter-American System in 1991, and the “democracy clause” at the Summit of the Americas in the city of Québec in April 2001.

The development of the charter is an enduring example of what the countries of this hemisphere can achieve when they work together toward a common goal, in this case to further and entrench democracy throughout our region.

The 10th anniversary of the charter provides us with a unique opportunity to reflect on that achievement and to engage in a frank, constructive discussion of how we might further implementation of the charter.

Canada’s commitment to the charter and its principles is as strong today as it was a decade ago. Many of what Canada considers fundamental components of a strong democracy are outlined in chapter I of the charter. These include:

  • the separation and balance of power among public institutions;
  • freedom of expression;
  • a vibrant civil society;
  • respect for minority rights and respect of minority views;
  • the existence of a free media; and
  • respect for a loyal political opposition.

We believe that these essential elements of democratic practice have stood the test of time. Today, here in Valparaíso, we need a renewed and collective commitment to their effective implementation.

Canada has long played an active role in efforts to advance democratic governance in the region, including through contributions to the establishment of the Organization of American States’ [OAS’] Unit for the Promotion of Democracy and to the drafting and adoption of the charter itself.

In 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper identified the promotion of democratic governance as one of three, key pillars of Canada’s new strategy for enhancing its engagement in the Americas.

Since that announcement, Canada has contributed significant financial support to fund numerous OAS electoral observation missions, and conflict-resolution and institutional capacity-building initiatives, as well as other OAS democracy-related programming throughout the hemisphere.

Canada is also funding a number of citizen-centred, non-partisan and inclusive initiatives to help bolster citizen participation in local political processes.

We continue, of course, to co-sponsor the OAS’ annual resolution on furthering implementation of the Inter-American Democratic Charter and to also work to support the OAS secretary general and the organization’s efforts in times of democratic crisis.

The rationale underlying all of these efforts is that democracy, if it is to be durable, requires nurturing, improvement and oversight. It is a constant work-in-progress. It is true in Canada and I am certain it is true in all democracies.

Certainly, we have made significant strides in consolidating democracy in our region. The governments of all of the signatories of the charter represented here today have come to power through free and fair elections. Coup d’états are no longer feasible as they would attract immediate condemnation from the states of the hemisphere.

Civil society engagement throughout the Americas is becoming generally more vibrant and active and polls consistently indicate that our citizens continue to view democracy as their political system of choice.

But while we appear to have left behind the dictatorships and authoritarianism of the past, there remain considerable challenges to the consolidation of democracy.

These include persistent economic inequality and social exclusion, which have resulted in some of our citizens questioning whether there truly is a democratic dividend. We must maintain our efforts to increase prosperity and ensure that the benefits of increased wealth are enjoyed by all of our citizens. 

In some countries, serious concerns have been expressed about the erosion of democratic practices and institutions—be it manifested in a centralization of power with the Executive; in restrictions on the civil and political rights of opposition parties, the media or civil society organizations; in the compromise of legitimate state institutions through corruption and the infiltration of criminal interests; or in partisan control exerted over national electoral bodies.

Such backsliding and threats must be confronted or we risk having setbacks to the significant progress we have made on extending and enhancing democratic governance in the Americas.

The Inter-American Democratic Charter continues to provide the best platform from which to launch our efforts to meet these challenges, and Canada remains steadfast in its commitment to working with the OAS and our fellow member states to further the charter’s implementation.

The charter provides both the OAS as an institution and its secretary general with an effective range of tools to promote and defend democracy in our hemisphere.

However, the application of those tools requires increased effort. Action to promote and safeguard democracy is one of the OAS’ core missions. The secretary general is uniquely positioned to play an important role in this regard. The value of the secretary general’s statements and good offices missions, drawing on the charter, to advance democratic governance cannot and should not be underestimated. The secretary general is elected by all member states and should be free to travel anywhere to address issues of common interest, notably democratic deficits, and to bring these to the attention of the Permanent Council of the OAS General Assembly.

Let us not try to hide our respective shortcomings behind appeals to sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs, but humbly accept the secretary general as a good offices mission, ultimately concerned with strengthening democracy in all member states.

I am heartened that the Secretary General himself has underscored the need for the OAS to address violations of the charter that threaten to subvert democracy and weaken our democratic institutions. Proactive measures to address and indeed prevent such violations are imperative if we are to avert future democratic crises.

Canada believes the creation of a special rapporteur for democracy could assist in this regard. Given the constraints placed on the secretary general’s time by many competing mandates, the establishment of such a permanent, independent office—complete with the freedom to visit member states at will and to consult, report and issue recommendations—could serve an important promotional and preventive function for our region.

Another proposal Canada strongly supports is the creation of a compendium of best practices focused on the practice of democracy. For Canada, the charter is most valuable when it is treated as a living document and used to shape policy through dialogue.

An open and ongoing exchange on the practice of democracy would be healthy for democracy in the Americas. Canada believes the creation of a compendium of best practices would provide a good starting point for such discussion.

We would all benefit from such an exercise; no country has a perfect record in the practice of democracy, Canada included, and there is always room to improve by learning from each other. A compendium containing examples of what each member state considers its positive national contributions to democratic practice could provide a basis for discussion to identify a set of mutually agreed-upon best practices. Such an exercise could make a significant contribution to strengthening the charter.

As the most important political forum in the hemisphere, the OAS has a vital role to play in championing the Democratic Charter and in defending democracy in our region. However, it goes without saying that the OAS will only succeed in this regard if we, its member states, actively support it in this mission. This includes by coming together to support the secretary general’s work to bolster democratic governance in the Americas and by signalling our concerns when democracy is under threat.

Canada stands ready to work with the OAS and our fellow members to strengthen democracy throughout the hemisphere and I, personally, look forward to hearing all of your views on how we might best do so.

Thank you.