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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Remarks at the 41st OAS General Assembly

William J. Burns
Under Secretary for Political Affairs 
As Prepared for Delivery
San Salvador, El Salvador
June 6, 2011


Let me begin by thanking Secretary General Insulza, President Funes, and Foreign Minister Martinez for their superb efforts in organizing and hosting this 41st General Assembly of the Organization of American States.

It is fitting to the spirit of the OAS Charter and the Inter American Democratic Charter that the General Assembly is meeting in El Salvador. The hard-won achievements of Salvadorans are widely recognized. I would like to reemphasize President Obama’s words during his March visit here, when he commended El Salvador for its courageous work to overcome old divisions, and for showing that progress comes through pragmatism and building consensus.

The theme our hosts have selected for this General Assembly, “Citizen Security in the Americas,” is profoundly important for all of us, and we applaud the Salvadoran decision to highlight citizen security as the theme of our Assembly this year.

Threats to the security of our citizens often come from transnational crime. No individual government can hope to deal with international criminals alone. Indeed, the criminals use our international boundaries to their own advantage, and to the disadvantage of law enforcement. But working together, we can reinforce national efforts and create new collaborative efforts to fight crime in all its forms.

Throughout the Americas, our governments understand the critical importance of building effective, democratic institutions that can deliver concrete results, provide economic and social opportunity, and safeguard citizen security. Civil society across the Americas is a vibrant and engaged partner, helping to strengthen political will, and to amplify the voices of the governed. This critical partnership, within our countries and here within the OAS, is essential for building stronger institutions, reinforced by dialogue and mutual respect.

Regionally, there is renewed impetus for security cooperation and coordination between democratic societies—cooperation that transcends traditional state-to-state formulas, and that draws from the experience, knowledge, and resources of multiple players. In Central America, regional governments and other partners throughout the Americas – the European Union, and institutions like SICA, the Inter American Development Bank, and the World Bank – are collaborating in unprecedented ways to develop and implement national and regional strategies to bolster citizen security.

Let me recall that the first sentence of the first article of the OAS Charter calls the Organization to a high purpose—which includes promoting solidarity, strengthening collaboration, and defending sovereignty.

The strong partnerships growing across the Americas embody that purpose. It would be hard to imagine this common cause without the democratic growth and development that are transforming most countries in the Americas.

The OAS has played a very important role in getting us to this point. I think of the critical role the OAS has played in brokering the peaceful settlement of border disputes involving member states, or the ever-increasing number of electoral observation missions the OAS has undertaken.

The OAS also leads the way in developing peer review processes, such as that established by the Inter-American Convention Against Corruption. The Inter-American Human Rights Commission continues to seek redress for the victims of abuse throughout the region—and has not hesitated to criticize and make recommendations for every country of the hemisphere, including my own. We should be proud of this record, and continue to build upon it.

With these milestones in mind, we recognize that the central pillars of the OAS—strengthening democratic institutions, safeguarding human rights, promoting development, and enhancing multidimensional security—are important goals that deserve our focused energy. At the same time, a renewed effort to better align these pillars with available funding guides the efforts of the United States to ensure that the OAS remains focused and clear in its purpose. Strengthening of the OAS can be achieved, even in difficult budget environments, by directing attention and resources toward its core strengths.

The OAS enjoys a unique status in the Americas. It embodies much of what makes the Americas a remarkable community of shared interests and values. And the Organization has a vast capacity to nurture the impetus toward integration that exists in every sub-region in the Americas. That integration will be critical to the success and competitiveness of my country, and each of yours, in an ever more interconnected world.

The reality of the Americas is that our citizens have an increasingly sophisticated understanding of their global interests, and are increasingly linking up with each other and the rest of the world. We see this in civil society through the use of social media and modern technology. We see this in the private sector. And we see this in governments, across all agencies and at all levels.

And so, as we work in solidarity to strengthen our institutions to fight transnational crime and build resilient communities, we know that our common cause does not compromise sovereignty, but rather safeguards it. This is why we must work even harder to strengthen the underpinnings of our democratic societies—good governance, responsive institutions, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law—which are essential elements of democracy and founding principles of this Organization.

As members of the OAS, we have pledged to support and uphold democratic principles and practices, and that standard must continue to guide us. We share a fundamental belief in the dignity and worth of the individual, and that those who govern must have the consent of the governed. Democracy requires the ability of citizens to openly enjoy their political and civil liberties without fear of reprisal; a free and unfettered press; and a vibrant civil society.

During this year, there is a growing momentum in the region to reflect on the implementation of the Democratic Charter—and how it can be used more effectively and proactively.

The Democratic Charter served as our guide in dealing with recent events in Honduras, and assisted in shaping our region’s discussions regarding its successful return to our Organization. We should take stock of the lessons learned from this experience. Following the suspension of Honduras, the international community worked through the OAS to help Honduras restore its democracy. The free and fair election of President Lobo, and the formation of a government of national reconciliation and a Truth Commission, fulfilled the obligations in the Tegucigalpa-San Jose Accord. Honduras continues to exhibit an unwavering commitment to democratic governance. For Honduras, the recent vote on reintegration marked a historic milestone and represents a significant moment for the OAS, which demonstrated its capacity to safeguard democracy in the hemisphere.

By working together to integrate our steadfast commitment to democracy with real and sustained efforts to help citizens, we can make tremendous progress in advancing Inter-American cooperation in support of a safe and secure region. Our futures and our fortunes are closely linked. Our common challenge is to ensure that our common efforts support the vital role of the OAS.

Let me conclude simply by reaffirming the United States’ commitment to working with all of you and this Organization in a spirit of genuine and equal partnership.

Thank you.

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