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Organization of American States (OAS)

The Organization of American States (OAS) brings together the nations of the Western Hemisphere to strengthen cooperation on democratic values, defend common interests and debate the major issues facing the region and the world. The OAS is the region’s principal multilateral forum for strengthening democracy, promoting human rights, and confronting shared problems such as poverty, terrorism, illegal drugs and corruption. It plays a leading role in carrying out mandates established by the hemisphere’s leaders through the Summits of the Americas.

With four official languages — English, Spanish, Portuguese and French — the OAS reflects the rich diversity of the hemisphere’s peoples and cultures. It is made up of 35 member states: the independent nations of North, Central and South America and the Caribbean. The government of Cuba, a member state, has been suspended from participation since 1962; thus only 34 countries participate actively. Nations from other parts of the world participate as permanent observers, which allows them to closely follow the issues that are critical to the Americas.

The member countries set major policies and goals through the General Assembly, which gathers the hemisphere’s ministers of foreign affairs once a year in regular session. Ongoing actions are guided by the Permanent Council, made up of ambassadors appointed by the member states.

The OAS General Secretariat carries out the programs and policies set by the political bodies. Secretary General José Miguel Insulza, who took office in May 2005, restructured the General Secretariat so the priorities of the member states could be addressed more effectively. Four specialized secretariats coordinate OAS efforts in several broad areas:

• Secretariat for Multidimensional Security – Coordinates OAS actions against terrorism, illegal drugs and other threats to public security.
• Secretariat for Political Affairs – Directs efforts to promote democracy, strengthen democratic governance and prevent democratic crises.
• Executive Secretariat for Integral Development – Includes departments that promote social development, sustainable development, trade and tourism, and education, culture, science and technology. Also handles follow-up to the region’s ministerial meetings.
• Secretariat for Administration and Finance – Provides support services to the General Secretariat, in areas that include human resources, information and technology, and budgetary affairs.
• Secretariat for Legal Affairs – Promotes legal cooperation among the member states by helping to develop and implement international treaties.

Other offices and agencies – such as the Inter-American human rights bodies and the Summits of the Americas Department – report directly to the OAS Secretary General. The Assistant Secretary General also oversees various administrative areas and specialized units, including the secretariats of the Inter-American Commission of Women, the Inter-American Children’s Institute, the Inter-American Committee on Ports and the Inter-American Telecommunication Commission.

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