by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.
Unfortunately, as the second decade of the 21st century reaches its end, there remains no shortage of dictatorships in the world. According to the 2018 Democracy Index, produced by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), there are now 53 authoritarian states and 39 quasi-authoritarian or “hybrid” states. Despite the geographic diffusion of these repressive regimes, African regional bodies are called on disproportionately to intervene when elections are blatantly rigged or force is employed to quash popular uprisings. For example, in just the past two years, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has deployed military forces to The Gambia after Yahya Jammeh refused to step down in favour of his democratically elected successor, ECOWAS successfully pressured Togo into holding elections as scheduled under that country’s constitution, and the African Union (AU) applied some quiet diplomacy in Gabon to forestall political violence there.
For all of this, African regional bodies like the AU and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) came under fire for not intervening when a November 2017 coup d’etat in Zimbabwe foiled efforts to bring democratic change in that country after almost 40 years of rule by Robert Mugabe. This harsh criticism of the AU as a “club of dictators” is particularly undeserved, however, when one considers the inveterate refusal by regional bodies elsewhere in the world to take action in support of human rights and democracy. For example, the Organization of American States (OAS) has only offered some brief statements of condemnation as the Presidency in Cuba passed undemocratically from Fidel Castro to his brother, Raúl, in 2011 and again from Raul Castro to Miguel Diaz-Canel in 2018. As Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua has deployed troops against protesters since April 2018, killing hundreds, the OAS has considered sanctions but no action has yet been taken.Encouragingly, though, the Lima Group is emerging as a credible tool for preserving peace and democracy in the Western Hemisphere. This regional grouping – comprised of Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and Saint Lucia – met in Ottawa, Canada on February 4 to discuss the constitutional crisis in Venezuela. In that meeting, the Lima Group condemned the actions of Nicolás Maduro, who lost the support of Venezuela’s National Assembly in January 2019, and recognized Juan Guaidó as the Interim President of the country. The European Union (EU), the United States have also recognized Guaido’s legitimacy, while the OAS actually takes a more neutral stand.
However, the Lima Group lacks the same capacity to apply pressure on the Maduro regime that institutions like ECOWAS and the AU have been able to bring to bear. The declaration adopted in Ottawa calls for targeted sanctions against Maduro and his allies, while the Canadian government committed to provide $53 million in humanitarian aid for those migrants and refugees who have fled Venezuela in recent months to such nearby countries as Colombia, Guyana, Brazil, and Peru. In The Gambia, the ouster of Yahya Jammeh would not have been possible in 2017 were it not for the threat of ECOWAS deploying thousands of soldiers from regional neighbours Senegal, Ghana, and Nigeria. A military intervention under the auspices of the Lima Group would be highly controversial, especially given the historical tensions between Venezuela and Colombia, including the Caldas frigate incident in 1987, in which Venezuelan fighter jets almost engaged a Colombian guided missile frigate that had strayed into waters claimed by Venezuela. Given the history of military interventions by the US into various Caribbean and Latin American countries to either ouster or bolster authoritarian rulers, there are few credible actors that could in fact be called upon to intervene militarily in Venezuela. However, even if such a decision is unlikely, it increasingly seems necessary for some form of military intervention, as a clash between pro-government militia and protesters on February 23 led to the deaths of four civilians and many more injured, and the conflict threatens to embroil border communities in Colombia.
In the coming years, it will be worthwhile for countries committed to upholding democratic peace in the Western Hemisphere to dedicate greater resources to the Lima Group and to expand its role beyond the Venezuelan crisis. Evidently, if the AU is a “club of dictators”, the OAS has practically become a jackboot fan club. This is a consequence of the late introduction of the Inter-American Democratic Charter; that commitment to uphold democratic values was only introduced in 2001, too late for the OAS to apply principles of conditionality like those of the EU on members like Cuba or Nicaragua. With deeper institutional foundations for the Lima Group, it might yet be possible to remedy this mistake and begin truly holding the Western Hemisphere’s dictatorships accountable for the treatment of their citizens.