By: Lavinia Tombolini and Daniel A. Tovar, Research Associates at the ubaouncil on Hemispheric Affairs
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Debate over whether to move the headquarters of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) has brought severe and controversial issues to the forefront of Western Hemispheric countries in recent years. The IACHR is an independent entity within the Organization of American States (OAS) framework. Created by the OAS in 1960, the Commission which, operates within the Inter-American Human Rights System (SIDH), is charged with monitoring adherence to human rights standards by each of the San José Pact members, guaranteeing the protection of the freedom of expression throughout the region, and the respect of basic human rights, as well as serving as a consultative body to the OAS.
The IACHR is headquartered in Washington, D.C. whereas the Inter-American Court of Human Rights is located in San José, Costa Rica. Given that the United States is not a member of the San José Pact, the IACHR’s location in Washington, D.C. has been a recurring source of disagreement and friction among some of the member states, such as Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela. Since the United States is not part of the aforementioned pact, it is not subject to the ordinances of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. However, the United States remains under the jurisdiction of the IACHR given its membership in the OAS, but does not fulfill the ordinances of the IACHR when the latter operates in accordance with the San José Pact.
Within the process of strengthening the mechanism for the protection of human rights, which was initiated in 2008 under the auspices of the SIDH, a number of members have been arguing in favor of relocating the IACHR’s headquarters to a San José Pact signatory country. Specifically, countries such as Ecuador and Venezuela have contended, first, that the IACHR is influenced by United States’ political interests since it is located in Washington DC and receives the bulk of its funding from U.S. sources, and second, that the IACHR has displayed selective attention to allegations about human rights abuses in the region and thereby politicizes the issue of human rights. As an example, several OAS members have criticized the IACHR’s position towards the coup d’état in Venezuela (2002) and Honduras (2009) since they are not satisfied with the report on human rights violations.
The Inter American Court of Human Rights and the IACHR began a dialogue in 2008 about strengthening the SIDH by revising its procedures and operational aspects. The process ended with the 2009 approval of the proposed regulation reforms, which adapted the role of the SIDH system throughout the continent, allowing the IACHR to be “prepared to handle the challenges of upcoming decades.”
Concerns about the lack of resources led the IACHR to present a 2011 report on the financial needs of the projects of the SIDH. Meanwhile, during the OAS Ordinary Session in June 2011, the General Assembly formally requested that the Permanent Council review the performance of the IACHR. As a result, the Permanent Council created a special working group to prepare a recommendation report to strengthen the SIDH. The working group intensively discussed the IACHR’s degree of autonomy, and 53 of the 67 recommendations it made addressed the IACHR. The IACHR, therefore, began a consultative process regarding the reform project, which concluded with the approval and 2013 launch of the new reforms of the IACHR. Although it was not the first time that the SIDH was under analysis, it was the first time that the IACHR in particular, was scrutinized in such an unfavorable context.
The Requests for Relocation
The debate concerning the relocation of the IACHR headquarters began in 2012 when Argentina proposed moving it to Buenos Aires, a decision that called for a real re-establishment of the IACHR. During a summit in Guayaquil shortly thereafter, Ecuador supported Argentina’s proposal of permanently relocating the IACHR. According to the Ecuadorian Chancellor Mr. Ricardo Patiño, the request was sustained because the IACHR “had become an inquisitor entity against American States.”
It is important to mention that Ecuador has criticized decisions taken by the Commission on previous occasions. One such occasion was when the IACHR granted “El Universo” newspaper directors with precautionary measures, even though the Ecuadorian Court had rejected an appeal by the newspaper’s representatives five days earlier. The IACHR consequently asked the Ecuadorian government to suspend the repercussions of the conviction of the newspaper’s directors by guaranteeing their rights to exercise their freedom of expression. The Ecuadorian government has severely criticized the aforementioned decision by presenting a formal accusation against the IACHR for breaching established procedures and allowing precautionary measures in an ongoing trial. This accusation was supported by Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, and Honduras in a bid to reform the SIDH.
However, the issue of relocating the Inter-American Commission’s headquarters was not clearly defined at the time this issue was emerging. Countries such as Mexico, Panama, Canada, and the United States have refused the possibility of changing the venue to Buenos Aires, arguing that this would create an obstacle to the presence of Caribbean representatives in the IACHR, meaning that the IACHR would be more Latin American than Hemispheric.
During the second state members’ meeting held in 2013 in Cochabamba, Bolivia, several countries made another request to move the IACHR’s headquarters, calling upon the Secretary General of the OAS to create a new commission responsible for overseeing funding related to the change of the IACHR venue. Likewise, the newly formed Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) suggested a review of the Rapporteurship system and its financial resources. UNASUR also requested that member states be more responsible for SIDH financing considering that the United States is at the present time its principal funder.
During this process, some of the reforms presented at the forum that produced the 2014 Declaration of Haiti raised concerns among the member-states, and in particular that the reforms would substantially reduce the funding of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression. Since the rapporteur’s office receives the majority of its funds through foreign donations, some of the member states were concerned that this office could be susceptible to policy and media manipulation coming from the U.S. Therefore, the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our America (ALBA, Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América) requested the creation of a unified financial fund to control foreign donations and distribute the organization’s budget. However, some countries have argued that these reforms could undermine the independence and compromise the autonomy of the IACHR because they increase the member states’ influence over the organization.
During the 2014 conference in Haiti, Ecuador and other members argued that the IACHR was already controlled by the hegemonic states and rehashed the discussion of moving the IACHR headquarters to elsewhere in the hemisphere. The government of Venezuela accused the IACHR of being partial and Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa reproached the United States for not being a member of the San José Pact. Therefore, supported by Venezuela, President Correa suggested moving the headquarters to Haiti.
Despite these critiques of the IACHR’s operations, the reforms proposed by Ecuador and Venezuela were not supported by the rest of the member states. The United States described the funding initiative as “a dangerous precedent, [as the] Commission needs flexibility…. in order to [properly] allocate resources.”
The Obstacles Facing Relocation
The IACHR, unlike the Inter American Court, is a main body of the OAS that responds to the Secretary General and the Permanent Council. Consequently, moving the IACHR headquarters would further complicate the IACHR’s work and would imply relocating the Secretary General. According to the former Secretary General José Miguel Insulza, the relocation of the headquarters would involve an amendment to the San José Pact and the OAS charter. He argued the transfer is “a misguided road because we all know it will not happen,” and added that the debate would “debilitate the OAS main body’s image.” Similarly, Paraguayan Chancellor Eladio Loizaga asserted that the strengthening of the IACHR will not require a relocation of the Washington headquarters.
Relocating the IACHR’s headquarters would involve high costs and a likely loss of contributions, not to mention that it would be difficult for member states to agree on a single location that could fit all their interests. Moreover, relocating the headquarters to Haiti would not be a valid alternative for Bogotá, since Colombia does not have diplomatic representatives in that country.
The Regional Influence of UNASUR
In 2008, UNASUR was created in order to promote integration regarding cultural, social and economic issues within the South American region. UNASUR has had influence over the debate on IACHR headquarters’ relocation ever since Ecuador and Venezuela initiated this request. In 2014, during the summit in Galápagos, UNASUR debated the probable alternation of the IACHR’s sessions in several countries, as this would decrease the critiques related to the issue of the IACHR’s autonomy.
In addition, in June, Venezuela’s representatives suggested to UNASUR for a creation of an organism similar to IACHR. The ombudsman, Tarek William Saab argued that the creation of a similar organism allows an “unbiased and independent work,” since the IACHR is susceptible to being influenced by the United States’ political interests. In fact, these critics are seeking an alternative to SIDH, since some of UNASUR’s members are complaining that the system has been a failure. Even more, some members have established that MERCOSUR and UNASUR could be “more effective” than the OAS as they would have improved relations among its members.
The Situation of Ecuador and Venezuela
The debate concerning the autonomy and independence of the Commission remains unsolved. Ecuadorian President Correa reopened the debate over relocating the headquarters in 2015 during the third summit of the Community of Latin-American and Caribbean States (CELAC). According to Correa, the “United States has not signed the San José pact, but they are hosting the Commission’s headquarters and financing it.” Correa also questioned the SIDH for its “distortions” and affirmed that he feels “solvencia moral” (moral character) to criticize these abuses and the legality of the IACHR. As a result, the Ecuadorian government declined to send its representatives to the hearings of the IACHR for the fourth consecutive time.
Moreover, after refusing the permission to an observation visit from the IACHR, Venezuela was accused of several human rights violations. According to the Venezuelan government representative, Germán Saltrón, the refusal is due to the support given by the IACHR to the April 2002 short-lived coup d’état. After Venezuela’s refusal to receive the commission’s members since 2002, the IACHR established that the country is within an “exceptional” situation in the region. As was the case with Cuba, the IACHR maintains that the situation regarding human rights conditions in the aforementioned countries has not changed over the years. Indeed, since 2009, the IACHR and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights have condemned Venezuela for the prosecution of opposition politicians, attacks to journalist’s independence and violations to the American Convention regarding deplorable conditions in Venezuelan prisons. As a result, Venezuela was included in the IACHR’s annual report as one of the countries presenting human rights violations in the region.
Thus, since 2012, one year after accusing the American Convention, Venezuela withdrew from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights arguing that the commission uses selective consideration to human rights accusations and in this way politicizes the issue of human rights in the region. To Venezuela, the international system of protection of the aforementioned rights has been strongly influenced and controlled by the United States, with commissions recommending and submitting human rights cases to the Inter-American Court for review. Among recent developments, Venezuela no longer recognizes the IACHR or the sister organization, Inter-American Court of Human Rights. This is mainly due to the fact that the government cites the OAS and its human rights bodies as seeking to destabilize the country.
The Uruguayan Luis Almagro assumed his position as the new General Secretary of the OAS in March at a complicated time since some member states, such as Ecuador and Venezuela, continue to consider the IACHR as a rogue body dominated by the United States. However, Almagro, the “tireless fighter for American unity,” proclaimed his determination to separate political opinions from the IACHR and promised to “reinforce the technical autonomy” of the Commission as well as its role as an organ for promoting and protecting human rights. According to Almagro, “the IACHR should establish a base for dialogue with the countries that leads to positive agendas, creates conditions for mutual confidence between the countries and generates bilateral cooperation between IACHR and the countries.”
Therefore, Cuba, traditionally excluded due to pressure from the White House, has participated in the OAS 2015 summit for the first time. Venezuela and Ecuador, constant allies to Cuba, had consistently argued that the country should be included in international organizations, such as the OAS.
On June 16, the OAS elected new commissioners to the IACHR, completing the process of renovation of an organ whose make up has been questioned several time over the years. Thus, the challenge the new leader of the OAS faces in his five-year term is the need to strengthen the Regional System of Human Rights and to legitimize the role of the IACHR, in order to avoid further debates over the relocation of the IACHR’s headquarters. In addition, his mission will guarantee greater security and respect for human rights in the Inter-American region.
UPDATE (12:48 p.m. Friday, August 14, 2015): A previous version of this article said, “Venezuela and Ecuador, constant allies to Cuba, had consistently argued that the country should be included in international organizations such as the OAS and the United Nations.” This is incorrect, since Cuba is part of the United Nations. The sentence has been corrected.
By: Lavinia Tombolini and Daniel A. Tovar, Research Associates at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs
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Featured Photo: Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington D.C., October 31, 2012. From: Juan Manuel Herrera / Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos.
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