John Kerry
Secretary of State
Antigua, Guatemala
June 5, 2013

Thank you very much. Let me begin by thanking President Perez Molina and Foreign Minister Carrera, Secretary General Insulza, and Assistant Secretary General Ramdin for hosting us here in beautiful Antigua. It’s a pleasure for me to be back here in the former capital of Guatemala, obviously an ancient city with endless charm that welcomes all of us here and impresses all of us, I might add.

It’s a fitting tribute to the spirit of the OAS that – and also I think to the Inter-American Democratic Charter – that the General Assembly is meeting in Guatemala. It is a country that embodies our hemisphere’s incredible diversity, its hard-won democratic achievements, and its efforts to uphold the rule of law and to build a more open and inclusive society.

This is, obviously, my first visit to the region as Secretary of State, though I’m pleased to say I have been to many of the member countries over the years as a United States senator. And I’m very privileged to meet here with my colleagues from across the hemisphere to reaffirm the commitment of the United States of America to building a more prosperous, democratic, and secure future for the Americas.

I’m delighted to bring to the OAS the Obama Administration’s full commitment to partnership, including a policy of sustained engagement with the hemisphere. And I think as you all know, President Obama just recently visited Mexico and Costa Rica; Vice President Biden recently returned from Brazil, Colombia, and Trinidad and Tobago. I’m now here, and I can promise you all this is a presence that will continue over the course of the Obama Administration. We deeply value our diplomatic and economic relationships with all of the neighbors around this table.

Across the Americas, the OAS enjoys a unique status as the region’s most inclusive, most respected regional organization. It embodies what makes ours a remarkable community of shared interests and values. And it reflects the hard work of all of us trying to forge norms and create institutions that safeguard our shared commitment to our citizens of democracy and of human dignity.

The OAS is uniquely equipped to advance our central objectives – strengthening democratic institutions, protecting human rights, promoting development, and enhancing security. And we can do that throughout the entire hemisphere.

Today, U.S. ties to Latin America and the Caribbean command a high level of attention and strategic focus, precisely because the region is so important to our shared future. And our partnerships in the Western Hemisphere are vital to our own economic recovery and competitiveness, so obviously there’s also an interest. All of this is essential to our efforts to solve the kind of transnational challenges that no country can solve on its own – simply impossible. And doing so is vital to the universal pursuit of democracy and human rights.

That is where I’d like to begin today. Throughout the Americas, governments clearly understand the importance of building effective democratic institutions that will respond to people’s needs, provide economic and social opportunity, and guarantee citizen security.

Civil society across the Americas is a vibrant, engaged, and necessary partner to strengthening political will and amplifying the voices of the governed. This critical partnership, within our countries or among our countries and within the OAS, is essential for building stronger institutions that are reinforced by transparency, dialogue, and mutual respect.

The OAS Charter and the Inter-American Democratic Charter remind us of our responsibilities to offer our citizens liberty and to create the conditions in which they can realize their own aspirations.

And as we seek to strengthen the OAS, we need to obviously promote greater efficiency in the organization. I championed that cause when I was Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and I will do so now. We need to recognize that where the OAS faces some significant challenges we need to respond. We have to keep this organization’s focus on its core objectives – (audio break) – and we must remember that while the OAS can’t do all things, it can do many things uniquely, and those can continue to make a difference to the hemisphere.

The Americas presents a vivid example to the world that diversity is a strength, and that inclusion works, and that justice can actually overcome impunity, and that the rights of individuals must be protected against government overreach and abuse. It’s up to us to ensure the continued integrity of our [Inter-] American institutions by reinforcing and strengthening them. And in the case of the [Inter-] American Commission on Human Rights, this means ensuring its independence, its autonomy, and its financial stability.

All OAS member-states, including my own, are subject to the commission’s review, and no country has been singled out or targeted. All of our governments need to be prepared to work with and support the commission. And as a hemisphere, we have made enormous strides over the past generation in enabling the ideals of the American Declaration of Rights and Duties of Man.

But none of our countries is perfect. No country can claim that, nor ours, and we continue to draw strength from the scrutiny and the opportunity to review our human rights practices. We’re all diminished, all of us lose, when we fail to defend the very institutions that we created to safeguard the noble ideals that are enshrined in the OAS Charter: peace, democracy, development, liberty, and social justice based on respect for the essential rights of women and men.

Now, finally, I would like to just address the profoundly relevant challenges that are posed by illicit drugs in the Americas.

This is actually an area that I know a fair amount about from very personal experience. I was the chief administrative prosecutor in one of the largest district attorney’s offices in America back in the 1970s. And during the ’80s and ’90s, I served in the Senate as chairman of the Narcotics and Terrorism Subcommittee. And I have started drug task forces and I have exposed illicit drug networks and I have also exposed their links to organized crime.

And I will say that to all of you, the Obama Administration understands that no country has cornered the market on how to deal with this problem which obviously continues and vexes all of us. We understand that without adequate demand reduction, without adequate treatment, which must go hand in hand, we will never deal with the problem. And I am critical of my own country to some degree for not ever having done sufficiently – we do things, we’re making progress, but no country has ever dealt sufficiently with the issue of reduction of demand through adequate education and full treatment on demand. I believe those things are critical.

But at the same time, you also have to do the interdiction and the enforcement, and I believe it is important to remain committed to a balanced and comprehensive approach. I would say to all of you who think about legalizing, changing what you do, many jurisdictions have decriminalized to some small component, they’ve dealt with various components. But I’ll tell you we have changed behavior certainly in our country and in other places about smoking, which is an addictive narcotic substance. We have reduced it and educated significantly. We have changed attitudes about alcohol abuse. And where we are maintaining those efforts, we reduce its impact and consumption and impact on society, we’ve had a profound, positive effect. We have now reduced demand in America by about 40 percent.

So I would simply say to everybody this issue underscores the interconnectedness of all of us in the hemisphere, the interdependence of our nations. And today, these challenges simply defy any simple one shot, band-aid stop event. Drug abuse destroys lives, tears at communities of all of our countries, and so it’s appropriate that hemispheric leaders are coming here now to have this conversation. We don’t shy away from it; we welcome it. And it’s appropriate that we do so – (audio break) – OAS, an organization that we have built and sustained as a forum for common challenges and forging ahead.

President Obama has stated: The United States welcomes an honest and open discussion on the issues of drug control policy. We have excellent partnerships among us that address the demand for drugs, and strengthening institutions, and sharing law enforcement intelligence, and disrupting transnational and colonial – criminal operations.

And we will expand these relationships to the best of our ability. We take seriously our shared responsibility for the world drug problem. And we are proud that the United States has reduced cocaine use by approximately 50 percent over the last five years. So I believe we have to maintain a broad-based, comprehensive approach. We have to work together. And like the United States’ own national drug control strategy, we must emphasize recognizing addiction as a disease and the need to break the cycle of drugs, and crime, and violence, and incarcerations. As President Obama has said about our approach, it is based on science, not on ideology.

So we are committed to working together. We will continue to support a vibrant and active OAS. It is central to the vision of the United States in promoting a peaceful and prosperous hemisphere. And we reaffirm our commitment to working with all of you and this organization in the spirit of genuine and equal partnership, so that we can eliminate this scourge, or at least reduce it to the kind of nuisance that we have reduced many other criminal activities to in our societies. I’m convinced we can do that, and we remain committed to that effort. Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. (Applause.)

PRN: 2013/T08-04