The Dangers of the Hemisphere Operating without the IACHR’s Guidance

In recent months, members of the Organization of American States (OAS) have intensified their criticisms of the Inter-America Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The IACHR is an independent body established in 1959 by the OAS to create a Pan-American framework for dealing with human rights violations.  Heavily based upon the 1948 American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, it was the Americas’ first universal human rights document, which was adopted at the same meeting that the region chartered the OAS.[1] However, strong opposition from OAS members throughout the years has heavily compromised the independent nature of the IACHR. Critics of the organization, such as Bolivian President Evo Morales, have called for its elimination.

Source: Getty Images

The 42nd OAS General Assembly that convened from June 3 to 5 in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where it found fault with the IACHR’s proceedings and rulings, claiming that the Commission has acted as a tool for modern U.S. imperialism and thereby further fueling Morales’ discontent.[2] Calls to terminate the organization were problematic before the IACHR had even been effective in holding past administrations accountable for human rights violations and setting a higher standard for the treatment of people by the state in Latin America. There is a possibility that OAS-proposed reforms will cause concern, because the OAS will most likely put limitations on the Commission’s independence.

However, this was not the first time a member state has expressed discontent with the organization.  In April, President Hugo Chavez announced that Venezuela would withdraw from the IACHR.  This announcement was initially dismissed at the time when OAS Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza pointed out that in order for Venezuela to remove itself from Commission jurisdiction, Chavez must withdraw from the OAS all together.[3] Claiming the Commission acts as a U.S. contrivance, recalcitrant leaders from Ecuador and Nicaragua have joined Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez in their calls for reform in order to decisively bring an end to U.S. imperialism in the region. All four of these nations’ leaders have threatened to withdraw from the IACHR if reforms are not set.[4] Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa asserted, “We cannot accept the double morals and inconsistencies. We need to focus on the priorities of our America—neocolonialism is over.”[5] Although all 34 countries represented at the Assembly have expressed their concern regarding recent proceedings carried out by the IACHR, most only call for reform, not dissolution like their more emphatic ideological neighbors.  As a result, the Assembly decided to draft a reform plan and meet again in six months to approve the changes. If sanctioned, the reform will mark the first jurisdictional changes initiated outside the Commission since its founding over fifty years ago.[6]

Source: Miraflores Press Office

At the June assembly of the OAS, IACHR Chair José de Jesús Orozco defended the organization and argued that the Commission is among the world’s most successful supranational organizations working to protect human rights.  Stressing the necessity of the IACHR, he asserted, “This is about regional guarantees and effective mechanisms to ensure that nobody in the Americas feels defenseless when it comes to his or her most basic rights, and that the States—through their current and future governments—see themselves as bound to respect those values that…they embraced and made an international commitment to safeguard.”

The Commission, like all supranational organizations, requires that member nations sacrifice some measure of their sovereignty.  By deeming, on some occasion, policies of member states unlawful through a Western-centric lens, critics allege that the Commission has taken on too progressive of a role in terms of a radical agenda. However, the public ought to scrutinize the motivations of Latin American leaders for advocating the dissolution of the commission.  One initiative of this was a letter written some time ago by José Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas Division, who wrote a letter that found itself to the OAS General Assembly, which stated, “If this organization has been so successful, why then has a campaign against it been launched? Very simple: Because it has touched the interests of important governments that possess clear autocratic tendencies or are sufficiently powerful as to believe that they are entitled to not render accounts to a supervisory regional body.”[7]  In other words, many leaders advocate reform because the supranational organization has prevented them from fulfilling their political agenda.

For example, in April 2011 the IACHR provoked Brazilian authorities after ordering them to halt the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam project in order to ensure the livelihood of multiple indigenous tribes on the Xingu River, who faced the threat of displacement as a result of the project. Unhappy with the decision, Brazil recalled its delegate to the organization, suspended payment of dues to the Commission, and withheld its ambassador to the OAS in protest. Yet Brasilia quickly reembraced the Commission when it proposed to set up a Truth Commission to investigate the human rights transgressions during the Brazilian military dictatorship of 1964-1985, demonstrating how Brazil’s loyalty to the IACHR at times has been  based on political expediency.[8]

The Commission has lost popularity among a number of its members by refusing to yield to governments with unsatisfactory human rights standards. Leaders of this bloc cite historic acts of U.S. imperialism in the region as a basis for disregarding IACHR rulings that do not work in their favor. From the perspective of these critics of the Commission, the IACHR continues to kneel to U.S. regional foreign policy interests while overlooking cases that are contrary to U.S. national interests. Tensions tend to arise when the Commission is bold enough to condemn an administration for violating the human rights of its own citizens. As Manuela Picq, a recent visiting professor and research fellow at Amherst College, said, “These cases demonstrate that the Commission’s decisions are supported when they are aligned with governmental agendas and attacked and discredited when the Commission’s actions are perceived as inconvenient. The challenge is not as much to reform the Commission’s proceedings as to appease the wrath of states when rulings interfere with their political agendas.”[9]

Source: Reuters

Many Latin American countries may want to see the end of the IACHR just to conceal their own self-serving and at times compromised human rights practices. In order to draw attention away from their own corrupt institutions they passionately insist that the United States at times is using the organization as a mechanism for imperial calculations. To put to rest any claims that Washington is using the organization to further its interests, Washington has decided to take a neutral role at the June OAS gathering, stating that member nations ought to work together in harmony with the Commission.[10] As one of the most economically stable and democratically open states in the OAS, the U.S. delegation should not take a neutral stance, but rather support the Commission. However, the United States to this day still has not signed the 1969 American Convention on Human Rights Pact of San Jose, which means that the Inter-American Court in Costa Rica does not have any jurisdiction in the United States.[11] To avoid further allegations of imperialistic intentions, the United States should thus lead by example and must give some thought to allowing the Inter-America Court some jurisdiction to operate within its borders and offer more assertive support for human rights activism while steering clear of anti-human rights advocacy. Washington has a duty to not turn a blind eye to its southern neighbors’ human rights violations, it should, as a would-be promoter of democracy in the region, be consistent and careful not to set double standards based on its own narrow intentions.

 The IACHR is a necessary body, and must be actively protected to ensure the UN Declaration of Human Rights is upheld in the region. There are few doubts that some reforms need to be made to the IACHR, which will include limits on the Commission’s independence. However, it is this independent nature of that body that makes the IACHR effective.  If the Commission’s independence is taken away, it will have to conform to the narrow partisan political agendas of some of its member states, and that would mean at times acting contrary to its entirely noble purpose.

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Citations:

[1] Pearlman, Alexander.“OAS rights body facing criticisms, dissolution.” InterAmerican Security Watch. IASW Jun 8, 2012. http://interamericansecuritywatch.com/oas-rights-body-facing-criticisms-dissolution/

[2] Picq, Manuela. “Is the Inter-American Comission on Human Rights too progressive?” Aljazeera. June 9, 2012. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/06/2012658344220937.html

[3] “Human Rights in the Americas: Chipping at the foundations.” InterAmerican Security Watch. June 7, 2012. http://interamericansecuritywatch.com/human-rights-in-the-americas-chipping-at-the-foundations/#respond

[4] “Human Rights in the Americas: Chipping at the foundations.” InterAmerican Security Watch. June 7, 2012. http://interamericansecuritywatch.com/human-rights-in-the-americas-chipping-at-the-foundations/#respond

[5] Pearlman, Alexander.“OAS rights body facing criticisms, dissolution.” InterAmerican Security Watch. IASW Jun 8, 2012. http://interamericansecuritywatch.com/oas-rights-body-facing-criticisms-dissolution/

[6] “Human Rights in the Americas: Chipping at the foundations.” InterAmerican Security Watch. June 7, 2012. http://interamericansecuritywatch.com/human-rights-in-the-americas-chipping-at-the-foundations/#respond

[7] Pearlman, Alexander.“OAS rights body facing criticisms, dissolution.” InterAmerican Security Watch. IASW Jun 8, 2012. http://interamericansecuritywatch.com/oas-rights-body-facing-criticisms-dissolution/

[8] Picq, Manuela. “Is the Inter-American Comission on Human Rights too progressive?” Aljazeera. June 9, 2012. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/06/2012658344220937.html

[9] Picq, Manuela. “Is the Inter-American Comission on Human Rights too progressive?” Aljazeera. June 9, 2012. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/06/2012658344220937.html

[10] Pearlman, Alexander.“OAS rights body facing criticisms, dissolution.” InterAmerican Security Watch. IASW Jun 8, 2012. http://interamericansecuritywatch.com/oas-rights-body-facing-criticisms-dissolution/

[11] Pearlman, Alexander.“OAS rights body facing criticisms, dissolution.” InterAmerican Security Watch. IASW Jun 8, 2012. http://interamericansecuritywatch.com/oas-rights-body-facing-criticisms-dissolution/