by Dr. Odeen Ishmael, Ambassador of Guyana to Venezuela, at the ministerial
dialogue on the Social Charter of the Americas
Caracas, 29 August 2005
Posted August 29th. 2005
Thank you for allowing me this opportunity to express some views on the proposed Social Charter of the Americas.
Surely, the hemisphere's commitment to democracy and social rights will be further strengthened with the approval and application of the Social Charter of the Americas. You will recall that the drafting of this proposed Charter resulted from the OAS resolution in Ecuador in 2004. That resolution called for the preparation of a plan of action to include the principles of social development and to establish specific goals and targets that reinforce the existing OAS instruments on democracy, integral development and the fight against poverty.
The resolution also resulted from a proposal by the Venezuelan government ever since the Inter-American Democratic Charter was approved in September 2001. Venezuela argued then that the Democratic Charter which emphasises representative democracy, the democratic rights for citizens and good governance has limitations and, therefore, should be strengthened by a social charter which spells out in concrete terms the social, cultural and economic rights of the citizens of the Americas.
We expect that the final text of the Social Charter will reflect the Millennium Development Goals adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in September 2000. These goals include cutting by half the proportion of the world's population living in extreme poverty and hunger by the year 2015, even though this date no longer looks realistic. The final text would also draw on the Declarations of the Summits of the Americas, as well as the Declaration of Margarita on Poverty, Equity, and Social Inclusion; the Inter-American Program to Combat Poverty and Discrimination; and the Consensus of Monterrey.
A Social Charter is essential at this time when the countries of the Americas are working towards the establishment of free trade across the hemisphere. It is thus important for these countries, currently negotiating to remove trade and investment barriers, to establish a firm collection of social rights for their citizens. It is, therefore, expected that the Social Charter will make sure that living standards improve rather than decline when these countries which have varying levels of labour and environment protection eventually come together as a free trade area.
The Social Charter is meant to "give more balance" to the Inter-American Democratic Charter. The Democratic Charter champions "representative democracy" as the only model of government and development in the states of the hemisphere. By doing so, it does not pay heed to the role of "participatory democracy", a political ideal that is gaining ground in many countries.
This concept of participatory democracy in the development process was promoted since the mid-1990s by Dr. Cheddi Jagan (1918-1997) of Guyana. Speaking, at the time, on behalf of Caricom leaders at the Sustainable Development Summit in Santa Cruz, Bolivia on 7 December 1996, he summed up this qualification of democracy when he said: "Democracy must have as its objective 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness'. This would be ensured when it is embracing, not only representative (5-minute voting), but also consultative and participatory, particularly of women, and when not only civil and political rights but also economic, social and cultural rights are realized. A person must exercise his/her right to vote, but that right will be exercisable only if the food necessary for life is available."
What rights must be included in this Social Charter? Certainly, high priority must be given to the right to food, employment, health care, education and housing.
In grass-roots discussions, people are also emphasising the importance of participatory democracy and emphasise that social movements and civil society must play a more significant role in governance of the society since these movements, in addition to political parties, can become important planks in buttressing democratic representation.
One of the drawbacks of the existing Democratic Charter is that it fails to recognise the role grassroots social movements could play in fighting poverty. It is possible that the Democratic Charter takes a superficial and outmoded approach to the issue of poverty, which seriously affects more than half of the population of Latin America and the Caribbean. As such, I firmly believe that the new Social Charter must clearly set out the social, economic, cultural and indigenous rights that all states must guarantee their citizens.
We must not forget that there is also a direct linkage between democracy and poverty. The Social Charter can be applied as the instrument to help establish greater societal integration in the hopes of creating a more just society. Let us not forget that a real democracy cannot exist when the population does not have social rights, a large percentage doesn't have access to work, and many are without access to health care and education.
Without a doubt, the elimination of extreme poverty is an essential part of the promotion and strengthening of democracy and is the common and shared responsibility of the member states of the OAS. The Inter-American Democratic Charter itself states that poverty, illiteracy, and low levels of human development are factors that adversely affect the consolidation of democracy. Over the years, citizens of Latin America and the Caribbean have come to realise that democracy is not only about having free and fair elections. It also involves ensuring that all citizens enjoy social and economic rights which provide them with security and a comfortable standard of living.
I note that many of the principles outlined in the Venezuelan draft of the Social Charter are already included in the Caricom Charter of Civil Society. The Caricom Charter of Civil Society is based on concepts such as good governance; fundamental human rights; respect for cultural and religious diversity; equality before the law; human dignity; the rights of women and children; workers' rights; environmental rights and awareness; and participation in the economy. Guyana supports their inclusion and is confident that they form a strong backbone to the final draft of the document.
In the end, when the Social Charter is formally adopted by the OAS, it will form part of a regional effort at presenting concrete strategies and guidelines for countries struggling with poverty. What effect it will have on political and social development in the Americas will certainly be left for the citizens of the Americas - and posterity - to judge. Clearly, the numerous existing declarations, resolutions, and charters aimed at finding solutions to the hemisphere's long and painful history of inequality have not shown much success. With the Social Charter of the Americas there are now renewed hopes.