Remarks by Ambassador Odeen Ishmael of Guyana, Chairman of the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States to the Model OAS General Assembly, Washington DC, April 18, 2003

Posted April 18th, 2003

Mr. Chairman, Delegates to the Model OAS General Assembly, Faculty Advisers, Ladies and Gentlemen. . . .

It is a distinct honor to welcome you to the Casa de las Américas, headquarters of the Organization of American States.

It is especially noteworthy that I am speaking to you today, April 18. You see, it was on April 18 in 1775 that the silversmith Paul Revere rode to Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts to announce that the British were coming. What many people do not know is that Paul Revere did not ride alone. He was accompanied by William Dawes and they rode together to Lexington. But on the way to Concord, the British captured Revere but Dawes managed to elude them and reached Concord where he delivered the message to warn the American patriots that the British troops were on their way to attack them. As you know, the story of Paul Revere's ride was immortalized by the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. But I understand that he could not find enough words to rhyme with Dawes, so that is why we know almost nothing of the man who rode longer than Paul Revere.

I mention this little known fact because many a time unknown and unsung persons did play interesting roles in re-charting history. In the member states of the OAS, it is the ordinary people the grassroots, as we say who, with the onward drive of democracy now have a major say in the direction that their countries have to take. Their hopes, aspirations and demands are major factors in determining the course that their leaders take. Their problems act as a warning bell to the leadership much like the warning that the unknown William Dawes brought to Concord, Massachusetts, after he lost the more well known Paul Revere on the way.

I am always pleased to see young people participating in discussions on the future of the Americas. Certainly, the Model OAS is a useful platform for young people to display their talents in diplomacy.

The holding of model OAS General Assemblies serves a number of laudable purposes. It is an academic vehicle for learning and development; it offers both a forum and simulation of debates on issues of critical importance to our peoples where you, the students, must apply your skills as debaters and negotiators; and it increases knowledge about what the Organization stands for and what it undertakes in the world of regional diplomacy.

I am pleased to see that so many different universities are represented here both from the United States and other countries of the region. This is a mix that adds the seasoning of cross-cultural understandings to your endeavors, and I am sure you are all the better for it.

This week is the culmination of a period of study and preparation for you. However, I hope that these five days of intense and concentrated focus have also been leavened by some free time to enjoy your new friendships and the attractions of this city.

As an educator and as a diplomat, I see a clear and meaningful relationship between education and democracy that must operate in synergy to achieve the well being of our peoples. It is through education and learning that we acquire the tools to control and guide our lives. If we fail to educate our people about their basic freedoms; if we fail to provide them with learning and skills to shape their life; if we fail to provide them with the critical eye to discern the choices needed in public life, then such neglect can lead to a failure in our democracies.

An informed people, provided with knowledge and skills, with education about freedom, and a critical eye will be armed to avoid the pitfalls of such a failure.

When I assumed the chairmanship of the Permanent Council at the beginning of this month, I indicated that one of the issues I intended to focus on would be democracy. "Democracy and Democratic Governance" has been proposed by Chile as the main theme of the upcoming OAS General Assembly to be held in Santiago in June, and this issue is an important priority for the Permanent Council. In some of our countries, democracy is under threat and it is incumbent upon us to work together to develop and deepen democracy within our countries and, at the same time, to protect the levels of democracy achieved.

We in this hemisphere enjoy a distinct advantage with respect to some other regions of the world, but we should not rest content with that comparison, but rather continue to strengthen our democratic practices and institutions.

We have to develop a democratic culture in our societies to allow democracy to grow. But most importantly, we have also to develop a culture of democracy which will infuse a determination in our citizens to want to defend it.

As we progress, we also look to the possibilities of security and cooperation. We require stability, transparency and good governance from our political structures and we also require that the state ensure the delivery of basic services, including health and education, to all its citizens.

When the state is incapable of providing the necessary services and resources for the citizens' development on the basis of equality before the law, then the system will have failed.

The OAS has a long history in our hemisphere and we - all of us - can be proud of many of its achievements which run the gamut from the promotion and protection of human rights to facilitating trade agreements. Hemispheric security arrangements were adopted, cutting-edge scientific innovations were birthed at the OAS, and the progressive development of international law has found profound impetus here.

We do not have to search too far back into history to see what the OAS is capable of. As you know, the Secretary General of the OAS, with support from the United Nations and the Carter Center, has been engaged in a process of facilitation. Just a few days ago a major agreement between representatives of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, and the political and social groups supporting it, and the Democratic Coordination (Coordinadora Democrática) was announced in Caracas. The agreement will require follow-up by all concerned parties and includes aspects relating to the disarmament of unauthorized groups, investigations to end impunity, and the holding of a referendum as established in the Constitution of the country.

President Portillo of Guatemala has just announced his administration's receptivity to the OAS and the United Nations in the development of a commission of inquiry that will look into illegal and underground armed groups.

The Foreign Ministers of El Salvador and Honduras have just recently agreed that the OAS would name a geographer to help them resolve the remaining technical questions in the demarcation of their common land frontier.

With the conclusion of the OAS facilitation process on the Belize-Guatemala border situation, the proposals presented provide a solid basis for a just and definitive resolution of this long-standing territorial dispute.

The Permanent Council will also receive for consideration recommendations on policies relating to Haiti which will include strengthening the OAS Special Mission while also insisting on improved security performance by the Government of Haiti and renewed efforts by all parties to develop a democratic solution to Haiti's political difficulties. I expect to convoke the Permanent Council to a special session on this matter on April 30.

None of these efforts would have reached fruition without the confidence deposited in the OAS to carry out its role, or without the leadership that has been demonstrated by the various parties involved. Very often, solutions to problems between countries are propelled when their leaders make a decision to take a "leap of faith" to confront the issues, and develop imaginative ways to reach a mutual understanding. I have studied the evolution of diplomatic negotiations as they impact on country disputes and I am convinced that the role of the "facilitator," as a mechanism or a person, depends on the level of confidence that can be inspired. Without that level of confidence, there will be little or no dialogue; without dialogue we can never reach understandings.

On April 14 last we celebrated Pan American Day. During the special session of the Permanent Council to commemorate that day, I said that Pan Americanism promotes solidarity, mutual assistance and understanding. I pointed out that in these days when we are bound together by the common goals of the Summit of the Americas process, we, as people of this our common Hemisphere, have to make use of our common ties historical, cultural, economic, and social which link us closely to each another.

As we take our first steps into this new century, our common bonds will strengthen our will to work in solidarity to address the basic needs of all peoples for homes, work and land, health and schools. These bonds will also help us confront the challenges and problems brought about by the struggle to improve democracy, human rights, trade, health, education and security; and they will definitely assist us in waging the ongoing fight against drugs, corruption and growing poverty.

We all have to work together to improve the conditions of all the people in this Hemisphere. Politicians may have all the theories on how to bring about the solutions to problems affecting the ordinary people, but as we all know, practical measures are always more effective. And more often than not, the driving force of the ordinary people can be an effective force in ensuring real development and alleviating poverty.

It was the British author, Jonathan Swift in his tale of Gulliver's Travels, who set the challenge for the ordinary man by writing these words: ". . . . whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together."

These words offer a challenge an obligation to you - the coming generation of leaders to do deeds that will inspire the masses of the people of this Hemisphere. You are our future, and here, in this House of the Americas, we are working to provide you with a future based on hope, growth and understanding.

Thank you.

Return to Speeches