What is the Inter-American Democratic Charter, Article 20 and Article 21?

By Geovanny Vicente Romero, Guest Blogger

In recent times there has been substantial discussion about the Inter-American Democratic Charter, particularly as it relates to the humanitarian and democratic crises now taking place in Venezuela and Nicaragua. In discussion with the Global Foundation for Democracy and Development (GFDD), Peru’s Permanent Representative to the OAS, Ambassador Ana Rosa Valdivieso, highlighted the importance of the Charter, mentioning that it was adopted in 2001 in Lima, and also discussed Articles 20 and 21 of the agreement.

It’s clear that the document is significant and relates to democracy and human rights, but what exactly is the Inter-American Democratic Charter, Article 20 and Article 21?

According to official oas.org documentation, the Inter-American Democratic Charter is an international document concerning a set of democratic principles and norms that all signees agree to follow. The purpose of the agreement is to strengthen member countries’ commitment to democratic institutions and human rights as well as to promote development and reduce poverty throughout the region1.

The document contains 28 Articles related to OAS electoral observation missions, poverty reduction and female participation in politics, among many other topics concerning human rights and democracy. Articles 20 and 21, specifically mentioned by the Ambassador, are of particular importance. These articles relate to the strengthening and preservation of democracy in the region.

Article 20 establishes that:
“In the event of an unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime that seriously impairs the democratic order in a member state… The Permanent Council, depending on the situation, may undertake the necessary diplomatic initiatives, including good offices to foster the restoration of democracy.”

If the diplomatic initiatives implemented under Article 20 fail to produce positive results, Article 21 may be introduced which states that the OAS can “take the decision to suspend said member state from the exercise of its right to participate in the OAS”2.

Essentially, Articles 20 and 21 are used as a way to punish and then suspend violators of the Inter-American Democratic Charter.

This is why so often Article 20 and 21 are brought up in conversations about Venezuela and Nicaragua. In 2017 OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro suggested that Venezuela could be suspended from the OAS, if presidential elections were not free and fair3. Very recently, on January 11, 2019 Secretary Almagro called on member states to invoke Article 20 of the Charter against Nicaragua for abuses of human rights and democratic principles4. It remains unclear if the OAS member countries will heed either of these calls and suspend Venezuela or Nicaragua from the regional body.

  1. “Tenth Anniversary of the Inter-American Democratic Charter,” OAS, 2019, http://www.oas.org/en/democratic-charter/
  2. “Inter-American Democratic Charter,” OAS, 2001, http://www.oas.org/en/democratic-charter/pdf/demcharter_en.pdf#page=18
  3. Almagro, Luis. “How Venezuela Can Avoid Suspension From the O.A.S.,” March 24, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/24/opinion/how-venezuela-can-avoid-suspension-from-the-oas.html
  4. Associated Press. “OAS Invokes Inter-American Democratic Charter on Nicaragua,” January 11, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2019/01/11/us/politics/ap-us-oas-nicaragua.html
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