Democracy Lab

The Inconvenient Diplomat

A farewell to the man who spoke out against Latin America’s leading bullies.

This week, after three and a half years of diplomatic service in Washington, D.C., Ambassador Guillermo Cochez (pictured on the right) left his post as Panama's permanent representative to the Organization of American States (OAS). He was dismissed from his job by President Ricardo Martinelli for critical statements he made about the indefinite postponement of President Chávez's inauguration in Venezuela. Cochez's departure is a loss for the OAS. His voice will be sorely missed by those suffering under Latin American governments that have systematically eroded democracy and human rights.

Promoting democratic values and safeguarding human rights are supposed to be two of the pre-eminent goals of the OAS. They're explicitly defined as such in Article 2 of the OAS Charter as well as Articles 3, 4, and 7 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Over the years, of course, both right-wing and left-wing dictators have done their best to subvert OAS monitoring mechanisms. While the conservative caudillos have faded away with time and the Cuban dictatorship has not been a member since 1962, a more recent group of leftist "soft authoritarians" such as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Ecuador's Rafael Correa, Bolivia's Evo Morales and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega has been pushing to water down respect for human rights among the 34 members of the OAS.

Yet along the way, Cochez -- a Panamanian Christian Democrat with a 40-year career who first made his name opposing the military dictatorship in his home country -- has stood out as one of the few diplomats who has been unafraid to take seriously the OAS mandate to safeguard democratic freedoms throughout Latin America.

Cochez didn't need long to start speaking his mind. Soon after he assumed his duties in July 2009, he found himself attending an OAS Permanent Council meeting in December 2009 where his Venezuelan counterpart accused Globovisión -- the only remaining critical TV channel in Venezuela -- of leading a "media dictatorship." Taking the floor, Cochez caustically responded that "there is no bigger media dictatorship than that which imposes upon its people, through mandatory nation-wide TV broadcast, that they listen to speeches by its president [Chávez] for eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve and sometimes even thirteen hours on the same day."

That first encounter would set the tone for Ambassador Cochez's work at the OAS for the next three years.

Through his tenure, Cochez was particularly notable as the only Latin American diplomat who dared to challenge the legitimacy of the Cuban government -- a single-party dictatorship which for decades has officially labeled any human rights defenders as "worms" or "mercenaries."

In October 2011, Cochez took the OAS floor to express condolences for the passing of Laura Pollán, leader of Cuba's Ladies In White (a civil society group inside Cuba that organizes peaceful Sunday marches for freedom and human rights). This gesture was seconded only by the United States. Later, in July 2012, Cochez was the only OAS diplomat to say a single word regarding the death of leading Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá, who had just died in a mysterious car accident in Cuba.

Cochez was also unequivocal in supporting the beleaguered IACHR, the organization's independent human rights body, and especially the OAS Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression -- an active and effective media watchdog functioning since 1997. Both institutions have been the target of a recent "reform" effort by a group of countries, led by Venezuela, that aim to reduce them to insignificance.

In March 2012, Venezuela's representative attacked the IACHR and its Special Rapporteur as "politicized," "selective" and "financed by generous donors who expect their political and economic interests to be protected." Cochez responded:

I believe we cannot and should not accept the argument that the IACHR is manipulated behind our own backs because, first, we would be validating something that is just not true, and, second, because we [the states] would be conceding that we are not capable of defending our interests in the face of an independent Inter-American human rights system.

Some have characterized Cochez's stance as ironic, considering that the Panamanian government that Cochez himself represents has not shown the best democratic credentials. Yet Cochez consistently, if diplomatically, resisted Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli's own caudillo tendencies. In May 2011, Cochez recounted an anecdote about a legislator from Martinelli's party who had proposed a bill criminalizing insults against the president. Cochez explained that he had denounced the idea as "a step backwards," telling the lawmaker that he was actually "harming" the president "because freedom of expression could not be abridged."

Even so, Panama's wanting record on human rights and democracy under Martinelli pales when compared to those of Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua. The presidents of these countries have variously abused their powers to rewrite constitutions, extend term limits, judicially persecute members of the opposition and the independent media, and take over legislatures and judiciaries.

Tellingly, these are the same countries that have led the OAS into irrelevance -- at times through sophism, but more often through outright contempt for what they consider to be foreign "western democratic" principles. Not coincidentally, they're also the ones who have supported the push to undermine the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression.

In 2010, President Chávez called the IACHR's executive director, Santiago Cantón, "pure excrement," and in 2012, Venezuela became the first Latin American country to denounce the landmark 1969 American Convention of Human Rights. The Chávez government's bold anti-IACHR rhetoric at the OAS is routinely echoed by its counterparts from Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Bolivia. Lately, they've been joined, in part, by Colombia and Argentina.

Under the newly-coined "principle of non-selectiveness," these countries claim that the IACHR's annual report, which singles out the countries undergoing the most serious human rights situations, should either address all the 34 OAS member states (as proposed by Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, and Ecuador) or have the name and shame section eliminated altogether (as proposed by Nicaragua and Venezuela).

Where do the remaining 27 OAS countries stand in all of this? They don't. They have no clear stance.

Cochez alone dared to denounce "those [governments] which, through demagoguery and doublespeak, seek to weaken this organization."

The United States and Canada offered only tepid support for Cochez, even though these two countries have generally pushed for the IACHR to be strengthened. The same cannot be said of the OAS majority, consisting of 25 national delegations that are bullied by Venezuela into sepulchral silence or expressing tacit support for dictatorial Cuba as a legitimate "special" form of democracy. Few seem prepared to assert the democratic principles that the organization was founded, in part, to defend.

According to the OAS's democracy clause, governments who seize power through coups, as well as democratically elected rulers that choose to erode democracy from within, should be monitored closely and pressured into restoring democracy or, eventually, suspended from the OAS. Under this standard, it was right, for example, to suspend the Honduras government of Roberto Micheletti from participation at the OAS in the wake of the June 2009 coup that removed President Zelaya. But the democracy clause should also have been applied to Venezuela, suspending the Chávez government from the OAS for its departures from democratic norms, as well as to Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua, who are also guilty of undermining democracy and violating human rights. Indeed, the OAS would have been entirely justified in putting the presidents of these countries under the same type of diplomatic monitoring mission the OAS created twice (in 1992 and 2000) to watch over Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori.

When the Inter-American Democratic Charter was signed in 2001 in the wake of Fujimori, it was unthinkable that just a decade later, Fujimori-like governments would be allowed to systematically violate human rights, maneuver their way into multiple reelections, and find themselves at will to court and praise the only dictatorship of the continent while torpedoing the OAS institutions from within.

It remains to be seen whether anyone can pick up where Cochez has left off, as the lone man daring to speak truth to the powers-that-be at the OAS. In the meantime, the organization is almost certainly destined to continue its slow slide into irrelevance.    

Photo by KAREN BLEIER/AFP/GettyImages

Democracy Lab

Can You Save Diplomacy From Itself?

Carne Ross's quixotic crusade to help emerging nations get their seat at the table.

The chamber of the Security Council spreads out, airless and dimly lit, at the heart of the United Nations complex in New York. This is the inner sanctum of world diplomacy: Council members are responsible for maintaining peace and security across the globe, no less. A huge oil canvas mural, painted by the Norwegian artist Per Krogh, decorates one wall: A phoenix rises from its ashes, symbolizing the world's rebirth after World War II; and a group of farmers weigh out grain for all to share, showing how the international community values equality. This sense of bounty and fairness fills the big room with its large U-shaped table surrounded by welcoming blue chairs.

But the appearance of inclusivity is deceptive. The blue seats, center-stage, are reserved exclusively for the 15 Security Council member states. Other U.N. members must sit farther away from the decision-makers' table, on an incline. Even farther from the diplomatic action hangs the "public gallery," for mere onlookers.

The Council decor captures the real-life divisions of the world order. Only a handful of nations truly control the international agenda; others must make do with a spectator's role. This hierarchy is as fixed in the U.N. protocol as the blue chairs are fixed to the chamber floor. No diplomat, minister, or head of state would dare challenge it.

When Carne Ross, a former U.N. diplomat, begged passes from a "friendly" government in order to sneak his client, a delegation from South Sudan, into the public gallery, he knew this was a brazen breach of convention. It was 2010, and South Sudan had yet to be recognized as a state. Its right to a referendum on independence, won at the end of Sudan's brutal and prolonged civil war in 2005, was in doubt. Council members were set to discuss the referendum but South Sudan, whose future was at stake, was not invited to take part in the discussion.

Thanks to Carne Ross's subterfuge, the delegation, led by former guerrilla leader Pagan Amum, listened in on the Council discussion. Later, by door-stopping former colleagues at the United Nations, Ross managed to secure his client a seat at the table at the Security Council. Amum spoke eloquently about South Sudan's desire for peace and self-determination before an audience that included Hillary Clinton, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague. His speech made an impact: the United Nations approved the referendum, which was held a few months later. South Sudan became independent in July 2011.

Carne Ross, more than anyone, appreciated that with his ruse he had not only destroyed a taboo, but established a new way of doing diplomacy: Independent Diplomat was born. Forget the old-style diplomacy. In its place he would establish a transparent, inclusive, unpretentious service that would help the marginalized to the decision-making table.

From the outset, Ross was determined to distinguish his new outfit from the typical lobbyists. Independent Diplomat is different, he explains, because the firm only does "diplomatic process," helping its clients to navigate the tricky business of getting something done on the international stage. It does not "represent" them the way that conventional lobbying firms do; they have to do the heavy lifting themselves.

"The power of the state is declining," Ross argued in a TED talk two years ago -- before going on to liken the world situation to a Jackson Pollock painting, "complicated and fragmented." With the declining power of states, someone has to tackle the problems that the nation-states can't resolve: "Who is left to deal with them," asks Ross, "but us?"

Ross tells me that "we only help the good guys -- the legitimate democratic representatives, not any scumbag who will pay us." Such high-sounding aims could set a trap for ID: Many a client, determined to access the influence-brokers, might whitewash their record to look like "one of the god guys." Can Carne Ross really tell the difference between the genuine article and the phony?

Ross spent 15 years -- most of his professional life, in fact -- as a rising star in Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). A bright boy from the London suburbs, he had been on the fast-track at the FCO, and "despite speaking his mind, was seen as ambassador material," remembers Gerard Russell, a former colleague there. Ross loved the traditions that still dominated diplomatic life in the 1990s: the countless embassy parties whose gossips provided crucial nuggets of local opinion; the terminology that decreed diplomats never spoke with the individualist "I" but always as patriotic, collective "we"; the minutes (never memos) that had to be written on "blue" paper that in fact was green. He admired the ambassadors, with their veneer of charm and reasonableness; and felt at ease with the subtle distinctions of international diplomacy, whereby the British delegation could meet with top officials, but even the most junior staff could turn away a request from South Sudan, Kosovo, or Western Sahara. Statelets, with no status, they had no claim on anyone's time.

A Middle East expert (he admits that he does not speak Arabic, though his German "is pretty good") Ross was part of the British delegation at the United Nations in 1997, and later an eloquent defender of Britain's (and America's) sanctions against Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. He took part in the negotiations over Afghanistan -- but during a six-week stay in Kabul in 2002, he realized that the "minutes" his colleagues were sending back to HQ bore little resemblance to reality. The diplomats were sealed in the embassy compound, behind "high walls topped with coils of razor wire and sack-cloth netting, the latter to trap the rocket-propelled grenades that were feared as the greatest threat to our safety," he writes in his memoir, Independent Diplomat: Dispatches from an Unaccountable Elite. "Naturally, this was not the best way to detect the complex and powerful forces sweeping that country."

The disillusionment that first stirred in Kabul grew into bitter disappointment by September 2002, when America and Britain started their saber-rattling over Iraq. Their formal excuse for the invasion was Saddam Hussein's presumed weapons of mass destruction. Yet Ross knew that there was scant evidence of their existence. In fact, his friend and colleague David Kelly, an expert in biological warfare, had felt compelled to warn the press anonymously that claims of WMD were exaggerated; when his identity was leaked the government turned against the respected scientist. Kelly killed himself. Ross watched politicians and diplomats instantly retreat behind a wall of silence; later, in 2010, he testified to the Chilcot Inquiry, the official British commission charged with investigating the intelligence scandal behind the war. As he puts it, "the closed nature of our work allowed us to get away with Iraq." Suddenly diplomacy struck him as "a pact between the unaccountable and the irresponsible."

The young man who'd aspired to the glamour of foreign postings and challenging negotiations now dreamed of revolution. Independent Diplomat (which now consists, in addition to Ross, of a team of 18, based in New York, London, Brussels, Juba and Hargeisa) would apply their knowledge of the inner workings of diplomacy to give even non-states a say on the international stage. Size, influence, wealth, tactical alliances would no longer be a bar to admission to the big boys' club.

Independent Diplomat promises its "clients" -- a term derided by Paul Whiteway, head of ID's London office, who says it "smacks of commercialism" -- access to the power-brokers, but it refuses to play the ventriloquist: "Our clients are their own best spokespeople," Ross emphasizes. "They don't need us to write out their script or even lobby. We just make sure they're heard." With his 15 years' diplomatic experience, Ross knows how to navigate the system: which official to speak to, meeting to attend, above all which issues to raise. He prides himself on the "full and unorthodox service" ID can offer its clients: Given that the controversy over South Sudan centered on its boundaries, the ID team in London spent a day poring over 19th-century maps in the Royal Geographic Society, to study where the original border lines had been drawn.

ID's clients confirm that Ross and his team are facilitators rather than puppet-masters: "They did a fantastic job for us," Fatmir Sejdiu, the former president of Kosovo, tells me. "Independent Diplomat opened the doors. They had me speak to the Security Council members, even though Kosovo is not a member of the Council. I am very grateful."

So is the Georgian Dream Coalition, which won the general elections in Georgia last October, ousting President Mikheil Saakashvili. "They are not patronizing." Tedo Japaridze of the Georgian Dream Coalition tells me. "They steer, they don't dictate. I trust them."

Does ID's client list pass the litmus test? Ross and his London associate Paul Whiteway insist that ID checks clients thoroughly and will only draw up a contract when satisfied that they are above board. Yet some would argue that the Dream Coalition, led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, has behaved like a vengeful victor since its election. Ivanishvili and his colleagues have pledged to pursue former officials for "wrongdoings" and have already arrested a former minister -- prompting criticism from NATO, of all institutions. Georgia-watchers brand this a "witch hunt" and claim Carne Ross cannot be surprised: It is difficult, if not impossible, to make billions in Russia, as Ivanishvili has done, and keep one's hands clean.

Other clients with the potential to dent ID's reputation for discernment are the Polisario Front, the politico-military organization of the indigenous nomadic inhabitants of theWestern Sahara under Moroccan control; and, yes, even South Sudan. Both have been accused of human rights abuses; and earlier this month, the United Nations condemned South Sudan for expelling one of its human rights investigators.

Another challenge: How is freelance diplomacy supposed to finance itself? When Carne Ross first set up Independent Diplomat in 2004, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation awarded him a £40,000 special centenary fellowship "for visionaries." The honor brought attention fromGeorge Soros, and the billionaire philanthropist now funds one-third of ID's budget on a rolling basis. (Several countries and foundations also support the outfit: Norway, Switzerland, Finland, and even Britain, through its support of the Climate Development Knowledge Network.

Ross is open about taking money from George Soros and has written about the key role private organizations like Soros's Open Society Institute can play. They, like NGOs, and even celebrities like Bono, are the new non-state actors on the stage, whose emergence is blowing apart the inner circle who commands geopolitics.

Charles Crawford, former British ambassador to Moscow, is wary of Ross's enthusiasm for such agents of change. "Who, after all, is George Soros?" Crawford wrote in his blog, in 2009: "Who gave him a mandate to stick his nose and his money into so many places? Who elected Greenpeace? What possible claim does Bono have to speak sense on anything? Should not the fact that he rubs shoulders with world leaders at Davos embarrass all concerned? This all boils down to a deep and dangerous proposition: that the strength of feeling (and the feeling of strength) matter far more than the strength of reason." Yet even Crawford admires what he calls Ross's "idealism": "No one" he admits to me, "can fault Carne's faith in more democracy and more transparency."

Is Ross's Independent Diplomat on a moral mission? After all, this is the man who, when the late Robin Cook was British foreign secretary, wrote the first draft of a famous speech Cook delivered in 2007 on the need for "ethical foreign policy." Ross squirms at the mention of "good" and "evil." "Cheesily, I chose a compass as our logo," he says. Listening to him speak, it is easy to conclude that it is moral indignation that fuels him -- a presumption borne out by his books, which lay out his vision of diplomacy (Independent Diplomat) and radical democracy (Leaderless Revolution). Phrases like "the injustice of what passes for democracy," "the gulf between the astronomically rich and everyone else," and "the shame of 40 million Americans living below the poverty line" pepper his conversation with me. Indeed, there is something of a crusader about Ross, with his clean, Clark Kent features, lantern jaw, and thick-rimmed glasses. As befits the unpretentious image of his new outfit, Ross opts for jeans and a polo neck rather than stuffy diplomat tailoring -- though a suit and tie hang in a cupboard in his office, for those unexpected meetings at the United Nations.

"Carne believes in opening up the elite decision-making and having more bottoms-up organizations -- in other words, a utopia." That's according to John Ashton, the British Government's special representative for climate change, who came across Independent Diplomat at the U.N. climate change negotiations. Here ID was helping small island states, whose very survival is at stake, voice their concerns. "They did some first-class work," says Ashton. "But none of this guarantees the organizations will be run by good people with good motives," Ashton notes. "Populism and incoherence are not a recipe for success. For that, we need a small group of people at the top making the right choices." Ashton's viewpoint would sit uneasily with Ross, who sees nothing inevitable about a self-perpetuating elite which he regards as self-important and out-of-touch.

Gerard Russell, who worked with Carne Ross at the FCO in 1995, likens him to a lawyer who takes on the cases no one else will. "The fact that his clients can't pay doesn't make them good but it does mean they deserve a lawyer."

Not that ID is a charity (though it does have non-profit status). Ross stresses that although he draws financial support from diverse sources, ideally he would like to make his clients pay: "If people don't pay for your advice they don't value it -- as aid agencies have learned."

Eight years on, ID has been employed by Somaliland, Croatia, Moldova, the Marshall Islands, the Western Sahara, as well as South Sudan and Kosovo. They themselves have employed a number of former diplomats from both sides of the Atlantic: "When I set it up," Ross explains, "I was genuinely surprised that regular diplomats would talk to us. I had expected that they would shun us. But they didn't. It is regular diplomats who have been most ready to accept ID, perhaps because they ‘get' us in a way that non-diplomats do not. One German ambassador exclaimed to me that ID should have been established 30 years ago."

Despite such ringing endorsement, ID's new model of diplomacy may not prove as contagious as Carne Ross might hope. "Non-western actors -- China, India, and the Association of South East Asian Nations, as well as the Economic Community of West African States -- are concerned with preserving sovereignty and doing so using traditional diplomacy," says Dr. Randolph Kent, former U.N resident and humanitarian coordinator in Somalia. "The West may see the concept of nation state as fraying at the edges, but emerging powers aspire to strengthen their national identity, not dilute it. They believe old-fashioned protocol, with its ‘us and them' distinctions, supports their aim."

Indeed, given the economic downturn, even the West may have to hold on to the concept of "nation-state" and "national government" for a while yet. Intervention is visible everywhere, as the only means to kick-start economies. And given that governments need to talk and negotiate with each other, "they need people to do it," says Charles Crawford. "And we know who they are."

While it may be premature to write off the traditional diplomacy of Talleyrand, Castlereagh, and Metternich, it would be downright foolish to write off Carne Ross. His vision of the "anarchist diplomat," as a French magazine dubbed it, has earned him attention worldwide as a thought leader; aside from his TED Talk about ID, he has appeared on American public TVto make the case for re-engaging the electorate at the community level and contributes regularly to newspapers. Ross may have tried, and failed, to dismantle the institution of diplomacy. But isn't he, as his old colleague Gerard Russell puts it, "in danger of becoming an institution himself?"

Photo by Emily Kasriel/BBC