Plans for Parallel Conference of the OAS
by Prema Oza
May 28, 2000
Various social justice groups from Ottawa, Toronto, Windsor and Detroit are busy making last minute preparations for alternative events and counter strategies in response to the preparatory meeting of First Minister’s of nations belonging to the Organization of American States (OAS). While some groups are busy planning a parallel conference, other groups merely want to shut down the OAS event.
The OAS is a governing body similar to the United Nations. It holds an annual General Assembly with lower level First Minister’s to discuss policy formulation and implementation to be followed by a Summit meeting of heads of state to develop implementation strategies. It touts itself as “the western hemisphere’s principal forum for political, social, and economic dialogue.” Currently, there are 35 members that comprise the OAS, including such economically and culturally diverse countries as: Canada, Ecuador, Haiti, Spain and Panama.
According to the international organization’s website, it’s mandate is to work collectively to safeguard democracy, human rights, peace and security while “expanding trade and tackling complex problems caused by poverty, drugs and corruption.” In addition, the OAS claims to have made a commitment to a “focus on education [and] justice….”
While social justice groups may differ on approach, both sides agree that the OAS is not living up to its lauded mandate.
“Human rights, social and cultural rights and environmental sustainability need to be treated as superior to corporate rights,” said Jim Porter, one of the meeting organizers.
While some groups want to shut down the meeting altogether, others merely want to enhance dialogue, etc., and have organized a parallel conference to take place around the OAS meetings themselves.
Historically, parallel conferences to international meetings of such bodies as the UN and IMF are seen as an ideal venue for social justice groups, also known as non-governmental organizations or NGOs, to raise awareness among both citizenry and the media. They are viewed as a an alternative source for grassroots knowledge that often gets pushed aside in the hustle-and-bustle of high and mid level meetings among politicos.
Vito Signorelli, a member of the MAI Coalition, appeared to echo many of the sentiments of those in attendance when he said, “I don’t wanna shut it down, I wanna kick it in the ass. We should be drawing attention to the fact that they’re not doing their job.”
Regardless of the movement’s intent, local law enforcement officials are taking no chances, and are stepping up security precautions to avoid what the media is hyping as another potential “battle in Seattle.”
Social activists argue that the OAS has ignored its own mandate by becoming a rubber-stamping organization that pays mere lip service to the countless lives it is supposed to be protecting. The OAS, similar to the UN, lacks enforcement abilities. Detractors claim that it also suffers from social myopia where corporate greed often supercedes individual and collective rights and freedoms.
Angela Ventura of the Salvadorean Association of Windsor encouraged the meeting to engage in dialogue with the OAS in the hopes of working together.
“We need to work closely with the agenda of the OAS,” she said. “We should request the OAS to be part of the agenda of the (parallel) conference.”
There were some well-placed concerns over preaching to the converted with regard to the agenda of the parallel conference. The steering committee will look at a platform for a debate of issues and not just an opportunity to hear speeches and declarations.
The parallel conference has garnered some pretty major support in leading labour and social justice circles. Among the tentative list of speakers are Maude Barlow of the Canadian Labour Congress. In addition, the conference itself is largely being coordinated by the Montreal-based International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development (ICHRDD) – the brainchild of former NDP federal leader Ed Broadbent.
One can assume that the parallel conference will be large in scope and attendance, atracting a number of NGOs from across Canada and the world, as well as dignitaries and the press.
Concerns over representation were raised by Refugee committee member, Sungee John, who said that the organizing should be reflective of the nations being represented.
The goals of the parallel conference are simple, its task enormous. How do you make a bunch of stuffed shirts see that any and all trade agreements and social policies must comply with human rights laws? According to the ICHRDD’s current president, Warren Allmand, “Canada can and must exercise its leadership. Human rights should not be viewed as a ‘trickle-down’ effect of international trade.”
Among the tentative events that will comprise the parallel conference are various guest speakers from Canadian and Latin American labour and social justice groups, debates on current concerns of OAS member countries, awareness raising events in the preceding days of the actual meeting (dubbed the International Days of Action), a rally at Dieppe Gardens, a peace concert and an Earth Day gathering.
The actual First Minister’s meeting of the OAS will be a Windsor first in terms of scale, and is set to take place here June 4-6th. The location of Windsor is no coincidence due largely to the political pull of our Deputy Prime Minister, the Honorable Herb Gray, who lobbied to have the conference held in his home riding. According to the organization’s protocol, the June meeting will yield various policy initiatives which will then be ratified by the actual OAS meeting of world leaders in Montreal next year —where yet another international protest is more than likely.