The Organization of American States, the oldest regional international organization in the world, traces its origins to the Congress of Panama, convoked by Simon Bolivar in 1826. Hemispheric countries continued the discussion of an inter-American system during the rest of the 19th century. The first concrete step was taken in 1889, when the First International Conference of American States convened in Washington, DC. On April 14, 1890, Delegates created the International Union of American Republics “for the prompt collection and distribution of commercial information” with the participation of 18 Western Hemisphere nations, including the United States.
The experience of two World Wars convinced the nations of the Americas that more cooperation among them was required if they were to maintain peaceful relations and foster their mutual prosperity. In 1948, the United States and 20 other American republics signed the OAS Charter, which reaffirmed the fundamental rights and duties of states, proclaimed the goals of the new organization, and established its organs and agencies. That conference also approved the American Treaty on Pacific Settlement (Pact of Bogotá) and the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man. The OAS Charter proclaims the organization to be a regional agency within the UN system. The basic objectives of the OAS, as laid out in its Charter, are to strengthen peace and security; promote the effective exercise of representative democracy; ensure the peaceful settlement of disputes among members; provide for common action in the event of aggression; seek solutions to political, juridical, and economic problems that may arise; promote, by cooperative action, economic, social, educational, scientific, and cultural development.
Today, the OAS has 35 member states, with the addition of Canada and the independent nations of the Caribbean in the last quarter of the 20th Century. Among its most notable accomplishments are: the establishment of the Inter-American Development Bank and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 1959; the first electoral observation missions in the Americas in 1962; the signing of the American Convention on Human Rights in 1969; and the adoption of groundbreaking international instruments to combat violence against women (1994), corruption (1996), and terrorism (2002). The Inter-American Democratic Charter, which makes explicit the commitment of the OAS and its member states to democracy and proclaims that “the peoples of the Americas have a right to democracy and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it,” was signed on September 11, 2001 in Lima, Peru, only hours after terrorists attacked the United States, murdering citizens from nearly all OAS member states.
The delegations of the member states meet throughout the year at OAS Headquarters in Washington, D.C. A General Assembly, attended by the Foreign Ministers, is held annually, usually in June, in one of the member states.