Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Why Is the IACHR Under Fire?

Peter Stehlik / CC BY 3.0

Q: The Organization of American States on March 22 rejected attempts by the governments of Venezuela and allied leftist countries to block outside funding for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Opponents of the effort to block funding say the move would have neutralized the work of the commission, which has angered leftist governments of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, or ALBA. What would rejecting outside funding have done to the IACHR? Do the ALBA countries have a legitimate gripe with the commission? Is the IACHR effective at protecting human rights in the hemisphere?

A: Carmen Lomellin, U.S. permanent representative to the Organization of American States: "Freedom of expression is fundamental to democracy and human rights. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has improved the human and civil rights of thousands and has served for more than five decades as the hemisphere's moral conscience. It works and it is a model for other regional organizations. This is why it is so important to defend its autonomy and independence. If your conscience is bothering you, the solution is not to silence it. No government should place itself beyond international scrutiny when it comes to the protection of basic human rights and civil liberties. A stronger and more capable commission is in all our interests. None of this, however, means that a process of modernizing reflection and reform should not have taken place. This was an enormously useful exercise, and as the largest donor to the IACHR, the United States actively supported it. If the states hostile to the commission had succeeded in restricting access to outside funding, they would have undermined the important work of the IACHR, particularly the special rapporteur for freedom of expression. This would have been a clear step backward for the countries of the Western Hemisphere, a throw-back to the dark days of military dictatorships. We've seen this movie before, and we don't want to go there again. An isolated minority group of states argued that the IACHR singles them out for criticism because the financial support that the commission receives comes mostly from the United States, Canada and the European Union. There is no singling out; all countries, including ours, have been subject to scrutiny and we all have had our differences with the commission on individual cases. The answer is not to cut off funding but rather to increase it from all sources so that the work of the commission can continue in a free and independent fashion, unfettered from governmental influence."

A: Nathalie Cely, Ecuador's ambassador to the United States: "The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has played a crucial role helping to nurture and safeguard democracy in the Western Hemisphere, particularly during turbulent periods in the 1970s and 1980s. Ecuador believes that it remains crucial that members of the commission, their deliberations and all final resolutions retain their independence and autonomy. The reforms that Ecuador and others supported would not only strengthen this autonomy, they would in fact strengthen the ability of the IACHR to fulfill its mission to protect people such as women, children and indigenous groups. Under the current IACHR funding system, seven of its eight rapporteurs are significantly underfunded, preventing them from properly protecting the rights of millions of people. Only one-the special rapporteur for freedom of expression-enjoys sufficient funding to serve full-time. In fact, it receives five times the funding as the average rapporteur. While we agree that freedom of expression is essential to the region's growth, it should not come at the expense of other equally important rights such as those of women and children. This is an inherently unjust and undemocratic system. Our proposals sought to raise the status of all eight positions to the same level as the special rapporteur and provide each with equal and sufficient funding to enable them to conduct their work fully and independently. No rapporteur would be weakened, and the IACHR as a whole would be strengthened. And no longer would individual states be allowed to wield their influence to rig the system at the expense of others. In addition, our proposal sought to require all member countries to ratify the American Convention on Human Rights, which gives the IACHR its authority, so that all agree to play by the same rules. It is unfortunate that 30 years later, certain countries still have not ratified this important convention. Fortunately, there was a consensus among the OAS members to continue ongoing discussions on these proposed reforms, and we look forward to further collaboration and debate to create a stronger, more independent and more democratic IACHR."

A: Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue: "Criticisms of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights by governments of varied ideological stripes are nothing new. But the recent attacks on the commission and the special rapporteur of freedom of expression by a number of governments-and not just ALBA members-have been notably severe and relentless. They have understandably been of great concern to human rights advocates throughout the Americas. Happily, the pushback by some governments like Brazil and Argentina, that had not clearly defined their positions on some of the proposals aimed at weakening the commission, succeeded in blocking the effort mounted particularly by the Ecuadorean and Venezuelan governments. To be sure, the merits of some of the IACHR's decisions can be debated, and areas of its work can and should be improved. But for all of its shortcomings, the commission has long played an essential role in defending human rights. It should be viewed favorably by the most vulnerable and least protected citizens in the hemisphere who cannot always get justice from national courts. While it is crucial to preserve the commission's autonomy, it is also important to avoid interpreting any reform proposal necessarily as an attempt to undermine its efforts. The commission and its supporters will need to continue to communicate with a range of governments and convince them of the value of its work. One hopes that, following the March 22 meeting, those who prevailed for the time being will remain committed to a proactive approach and more 'political' strategy to prevent institutional erosion."

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