AS/COA – Latin America Weighs OAS Human Rights Reform

Rachel Glickhouse
June 4, 2012

A number of Latin American countries are pushing to restrict the power of one of the Western Hemisphere’s oldest human rights bodies at a regional summit this week. The forty-second General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) opened on June 3 in Cochabamba, Bolivia, for a three-day conference of representatives from throughout the Americas. While the main theme of the summit focuses on food security—as well as regional issues such as Bolivia’s lack of coastal access and Argentina’s claim to the Falkland Islands (also known as the Malvinas)—one of the leading topics centers on the regional organization’s human rights body.

Created in 1959, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) functions independently from both the OAS and governments and investigates human rightsabuses in the Americas. The body issues reports and recommendations, as well as referring cases to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela are among the main proponents of weakening the IACHR—or eliminating it entirely. At the assembly’s opening, Bolivian President Evo Morales made the case for reforming the IACHR to monitor human rights in the United States under its full jurisdiction, since the United States has not ratified the American Convention on Human Rights. Otherwise, he said, the Commission “should disappear.” (U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not attend the summit, opting to send the deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs in her stead). In late April, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez announced that Venezuela would examine the possibility of withdrawing from the IACHR. The Venezuelan delegation at the assembly planned to present a document detailing the Commission’s “decline” and its connections to U.S. influence. Ecuador and Venezuela seek to cut funding for the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, an office within the IACHR to protect the press and promote free speech. The two countries also proposed to forbid the Rapporteur from publishing an independent annual report and to create more controls by member countries on the office. Bolivia and Nicaragua are expected to support the Rapporteur changes.

While the aforementioned countries are members of the Bolivarian Alliance, other hemispheric powers support the changes as well. Peru called for IACHR reforms when the Commission ruled last year that the Andean government violated the rights of rebels, executed after taking hostages in 1997. Colombia, which was on the IACHR’s “black list” last year for human rights, also expressed possible support for reforming the Rapporteur’s office. But one of the surprises was Brazil’s support for IACHR reform, which came in the wake of a IACHR decision last year to urge halting construction on one of the country’s largest hydroelectric plants. Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota said on Saturday that the reforms will help increase the Commission’s legitimacy. “It’s disappointing that a country that aspires to assume global responsibilities, including human rights, and that claims to adhere to multilateralism, would continue boycotting the Commission,” wrote Human Rights Watch Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco in aVanguardia op-ed.

But calls for reform aren’t only coming from member countries. OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza proposed changes to the IACHR’s statue and procedures, allowing governments to limit the Commission’s power. Under the reform, member countries would be able to decide how the Commission monitors individual governments and could impede the publication of reports by up to a year. In addition, the Commission would have more limited powers to declare protective orders for those with a pending case or petition at threat of immediate harm. Prior to the summit, Insulza insisted that the ultimate goal is to strengthen the Commission. But some are critical of his reform approach. “Insulza does have the ability and the mandate to speak out forcefully against the current proposals that will make the OAS even more irrelevant and offer counter-proposals of his own,” writes James Bosworth of Bloggings by Boz. Similarly, AS/COA’s Senior Policy Director Christopher Sabatini explained in an Americas Quarterly blog post that “what is clear is that the effect would be to whittle away at much of the independent voice of the Commission—the most effective office in the OAS.”

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