Colombian armed forces conducted an attack on March 1 against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Marxist-Leninist terrorist organization that had been operating out of encampments in neighboring Ecuador. The raid killed the group’s deputy commander, Raul Reyes, along with 20 other members. The attack would seem a near-perfect example of the targeted use of military force to neutralize a pressing terrorist threat: It resulted in zero collateral damage and provided Colombian authorities with compelling documentary evidence of links between the Ecuadorian and Venezuelan governments and the FARC.
But on March 5, the Organization of American States (OAS) adopted a resolution condemning Colombia’s attack as a violation of Ecuadorian sovereignty. The one-sided resolution highlights a broader problem with OAS member states: a willingness to place formalistic notions of sovereignty above practical cooperation to address fundamental regional security concerns, including the threat of terrorism.
There is no doubt that the FARC is an international terrorist organization. For decades, it has engaged in kidnappings, vehicle bombings, and hijackings. In one of its most recent attacks, the group last year killed eleven provincial lawmakers whom the group had kidnapped in 2002. Indeed, the FARC has been on the official U.S. list of terrorist organizations since November 2001. It is no surprise, then, that Colombia — which has borne the brunt of the FARC’s terrorist activities — seized upon the opportunity to eliminate one of the organization’s top leaders.
But OAS members did not mention any of this in their resolution, which instead reaffirms “the principle that the territory of a state is inviolable” and may not be the object of force taken by another state “on any grounds whatsoever.” The resolution also chastises the Colombian government for triggering “a serious crisis” with Ecuador. This exaltation of sovereignty above all else would suggest that OAS members have no responsibility to take action against terrorists within their borders. This is, of course, at odds with the reality of a post-9/11 world as well as with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1373, which requires all nations to “[d]eny safe haven to those who finance, plan, support, or commit terrorist acts.”
Unfortunately, the recent OAS resolution is no anomaly. Debate within the Organization has grown increasingly skewed and irrelevant over the past decade. While on paper the OAS has made impressive strides in combating regional threats ranging from the illicit arms trafficking to money laundering, in practice the political will to tackle these challenges is utterly lacking. Led by Venezuela, and supported by other like-minded South American countries, the OAS has become a forum where rhetoric regularly trumps reason, especially when discussing threats to regional security.
This pattern should be particularly troubling to the United States because cross-border strikes against terrorist targets are a cornerstone of the U.S. strategy to win the War on Terrorism. The Colombian attack is very similar to those conducted by the U.S. in Pakistan, Yemen, Mali, Somalia, and elsewhere. Colombia’s actions yielded valuable intelligence and dealt a serious blow to the FARC’s infrastructure and leadership. The March 5 resolution, predicated upon the elevation of sovereignty over the responsibility not to harbor terrorists, is dangerous precedent that could hamstring future counterterrorism efforts of the U.S. and its allies.
This week, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte will likely represent the U.S at a meeting of OAS foreign ministers in Washington, D.C. It is imperative that he remind fellow member states of their obligations to fight terrorism and clarify that the U.S. reserves for itself and for its allies the right to conduct operations like the Colombian one. The U.S. will want to avoid unnecessary acrimony with OAS members; but given the importance of this issue in the context of the War on Terror, the U.S. must take this opportunity to push back against the OAS’s reflexive tendency to ignore the obligation of all nations not to harbor terrorists.
– Alexander Benard, a third-year student at Stanford Law School, has interned at the Department of Defense and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Eli Sugarman, a second-year student at Stanford Law School, worked for four years at the Department of State on regional security issues in Latin America.