First, do no harm

The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates is famously credited for cautioning that doctors must “first, do no harm” – a dictum that is drummed into the heads of medical students everywhere. The admonition is useful to healthcare professionals when considering interventions that, in the circumstances, may do more harm than good.

Students and practitioners of multilateral diplomacy receive no such advice. Although non-intervention is the central tenet of almost every formal grouping of sovereign states, it is frequently disregarded, often to disastrous effect. The understandable and well-meaning urge to “do something” when faced with human suffering is often exploited and manipulated by those whose motivations are far less altruistic. The examples are legion.

One narrative emerging from the recent meeting of the Organisation of American States (OAS) is that the OAS – and more specifically, CARICOM – “failed” to come up with a response to the political crisis in Venezuela. The competing narrative is that CARICOM states “succeeded” in thwarting a US-led attempt at intervening in the internal affairs of a sovereign state.

The truth is far more complex, and compelling.

A TORTURED PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Diplomats often talk endlessly about procedure, and bury important substantive issues amid a thicket of arcane rules and vague statements. Nonetheless, in this case, a little procedural history may be useful. However, the important takeaway from this brief history is that Saint Vincent and the Grenadines never deviated from the position on Venezuela crafted by the CARICOM Heads of State and Government. Further, those advocating a modification of the Heads’ declaration were only able to muster the support of six of the 14 members of CARICOM.

In late May, leaders of the 14 members of CARICOM met in an extraordinary session to discuss the situation in Venezuela and consider a US-backed declaration that many deemed to be interventionist in tone and intent. Over the course of six hours, the CARICOM presidents and prime ministers hammered out a consensus declaration, which represented a delicate balance among competing interests, ideologies and priorities. The document lay at the intersection of leaders’ deeply-held convictions on democracy, human rights, imperialism, sovereignty, independence and non-intervention. It was presented to the OAS as a joint CARICOM declaration on Venezuela: 14 states speaking with one voice. Other Latin American countries supported the CARICOM position.

Three weeks later, in Mexico, an attempt to widen the circle of agreement beyond CARICOM and its initial Latin American supporters had the unfortunate impact of splitting CARICOM itself. The group of countries that proposed the original interventionist text – the Group of 14, equal in number, but greater in power than CARICOM – suggested negotiating a middle ground between CARICOM’s position and theirs. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines opposed this approach for a number of reasons.

First, and foremost, we did not feel that our leaders had either authorized a renegotiation of their consensus position or provided CARICOM with negotiating parameters and “red lines” to guide any revision of their three-week-old consensus. According to the CARICOM treaty, the Conference of Heads is the “supreme organ” of CARICOM, which is empowered to “determine and provide policy direction” for the Community. It was an act of hubris to believe that, without guidance, ambassadors could improve upon the language of the Heads of Government in such a manner as to retain the collective support of those Heads while simultaneously attracting the support of the United States, whose intentions regarding Venezuela have never been disguised.

Second, we were mindful that the original US-backed text carried an unmistakably interventionist intent. We are fundamentally against any explicit or implicit authorization for military intervention in the internal affairs of Venezuela. First, do no harm. There is an inherent danger in agreeing to dance on the head of a diplomatic pin with those whose interests are diametrically opposed to your own.

Nevertheless, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines’ objections were not sufficiently persuasive. A group of CARICOM Foreign Ministers authorized a three-ambassador team to negotiate with the Group of 14. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines’ further request that any renegotiated language be first considered and approved by the CARICOM Heads themselves also did not find favour with the wider group.

Fifteen minutes before the 2:00 p.m. commencement of an OAS meeting to discuss Venezuela, an email was circulated among CARICOM ambassadors, informing them that they should convene to discuss the revisions to the text that emanated from negotiations between the CARICOM 3 and the Group of 14. Because of the lack of notice and other logistical hurdles, the meeting never took place. As such, CARICOM never collectively read, considered or discussed the final substantive changes made to its Heads’ original declaration. The delegation of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines saw the final revisions at the same time that it was informed – by Guatemala, the chair of the meeting – that CARICOM had withdrawn its original text and substituted it with the negotiated revision.

Other members of CARICOM expressed similar surprise that they had not seen the final text in advance, while others raised more substantive objections to the revised language.

As a result, the revision of the original Heads’ document enjoyed the affirmative support of only six of CARICOM’s 14 members. CARICOM unity was fractured in pursuit of greater buy-in from the United States, Canada and the other Latin American countries. However, the document still fell short of the number of votes required for adoption by the OAS.

In the midst of the confusion and dissention over the substance and procedure surrounding the rushed revision of the CARICOM Heads’ declaration, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines asked that the OAS also consider approving the original, unaltered CARICOM document. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines resubmitted the CARICOM Heads’ document in its own name – without amendment – for formal consideration. Interestingly, a majority of CARICOM states could not see it fit to support a declaration crafted by their own presidents and prime ministers, choosing instead to abstain from voting.

QUESTIONS A-BEGGING

The events leading up to the rejection of intervention, the defeat of the declaration, and the split in CARICOM beg certain key questions. Why abandon a document that enjoyed the support of 14 CARICOM states for one supported by only six? If the revised text contained only cosmetic revisions, as alleged by its supporters, why didn’t they support the original CARICOM document when it was clear that theirs was defeated? If the overriding motivation was for the OAS to speak collectively on Venezuela, what inclusion or omission from the CARICOM Heads was so objectionable to prevent its collective support? What conditions had materially changed on the ground between May 31 and June 20 to make the CARICOM Heads’ original text unpalatable to the very CARICOM countries whose leaders had crafted it?

‘LEST WE FORGET

The concepts of “human rights” and “democracy” are so powerful, and so engrained in the psyche of the Caribbean civilization – and rightly so – that the mere utterance of those words is sometimes enough to foreclose debate. That was the calculus of the countries that frequently invoked those phrases when arguing in favour of a punitive and interventionist OAS position on Venezuela. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and other states that spoke of sovereignty and imperialism were accused of using the bygone language of a bygone era. The US and its allies were negotiating in “good faith,” we were told, with only the defence of democracy as their motivation.

However, ‘lest we forget, in 2002 there was a coup against then-president Hugo Chavez, who had been elected two years earlier with almost 60% of the popular vote. The United States did not condemn the coup, and instead quickly engaged with its architects. They called the coup a “transition of government,” brought about by Chavez’s purported human rights abuses, and claimed that Chavez had not been deposed, but had “resigned the presidency.” When the coup collapsed a mere 48 hours later, due to popular outrage among the Venezuelan people, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said that “the people of Venezuela have sent a clear message to President Chavez that they want both democracy and reform.” Then-US President Bush stated that he hoped Chavez had “learned his lesson” from the coup. Later, the US called for early elections, despite Chavez’s recent re-election and overwhelming popular support. Today’s feigned concern for the democratic rights and processes was conspicuously absent a mere 15 years ago. However, the call for early elections – before they are constitutionally due – remains a staple.

The Government of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines has consistently and vociferously defended state sovereignty and opposed intervention in the domestic affairs of states, irrespective of its relationship with the state. We opposed the threats made against the Jamaican government during the “Dudus” extradition affair. We opposed the kidnapping and exile of President Aristide in Haiti. We opposed intervening in the legal and political affairs of St. Kitts and Nevis, when protesters were agitating against the government of then-Prime Minister Denzil Douglas. We opposed attempts by European governments to restrict the movements and activities of democratically elected President Bouterse of Suriname. We opposed attempts at the United Nations to grant regional bodies the same rights as sovereign states. We pushed for dialogue instead of military solutions in Syria. We opposed intervention in Iraq and Libya.

Saint Vincent and the Grenadines is justifiably proud of its principled history in defence of sovereignty and non-intervention. We are proud that we played a part in the crafting of a CARICOM consensus three weeks ago, and we are equally proud that attempts to dilute that consensus with interventionist intent did not find favour.

BACK TO THE HEADS

This article has stopped studiously short of the outer limit of dirty laundry already aired by other CARICOM states and insiders. Much more can and should be said, starting, hopefully in private, among our Heads of State and Government at the 38th Meeting of the Conference of Heads of Government of CARICOM, which is scheduled for 4 – 6 July in Grenada. Discussion will no doubt include an examination of subsequent US-led events at the same OAS meeting that were so nakedly improper as to lose the support of even some CARICOM backers of the revised declaration.

There, in private, among the Heads who crafted the original consensus; motivated by principle; and steeped in the longstanding ethos of Barbadian national hero Errol Barrow to be the friend of all and the satellite of none, our leaders will have the opportunity to once again rise to the occasion and speak with one voice on this complex issue, remembering always that their actions must first do no harm.

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