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Hugo Chávez’ Withdrawal from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

May 7, 2012

by Christopher Sabatini
Shortly before he left for Cuba for another round of cancer treatment, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez announced his plan to pull his country out of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The last president to make a similar threat was Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori in 2000 when the IACHR had handed down a series of recommendations about death squad killings, the seizure of a private television station and the sacking of a constitutional court judge. 

The spectacle of two supposed ends of the ideological spectrum—the self-proclaimed socialist Chávez and the neoliberal Fujimori—railing against the IACHR is really not as surprising as it sounds. It’s the common bond of autocratic regimes that want to be free of international scrutiny and the obligations to protect and defend their own citizens that transcends ideology.  And for those, the IACHR—which has stood in defense of human rights for over 50 years irrespective of the ideology of the government—makes a logical enemy. 

Affiliated with the Organization of American States (OAS), the independent IACHR has defined human rights law and precedence on everything from holding governments accountable for disappearances by military governments during the bloody dictatorships of the 1980s (issuing a groundbreaking report in 1980 in Argentina), to arguing for aligning domestic laws concerning violence against women with international norms (1998), to defending Indigenous rights in land disputes with governments and investors in Nicaragua (1996) and Brazil (2011). Through it all, the IACHR has maintained a steady independence from the political vicissitudes in the region. 

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In fact, it is the only thing that has really shown any mettle or effectiveness within the inter-American system in recent years. 

Because the IACHR lacks the power to enforce its recommendations on the member governments, its authority is moral, based on the regional public shame that comes with failing to uphold the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights (to which, sadly and inexplicably, the U.S. is not a signatory) and the precedence and legitimacy of its history.

In addition to its seminal recommendations and field reports that have expanded notions of women’s, Indigenous and land rights, the IACHR has been an innovator in human rights tools. Among them the use of medidas cautelares that require governments to provide protection for individuals (including democracy activists and journalists) under threat of violence, the addition of special rapporteurs for women, freedom of expression, Indigenous peoples, Afro-descendant citizens, and LGBT communities.  These advances have saved lives, brought public attention to unprotected communities and breached new frontiers in human rights. 

While President Chávez’ threat will not end this laudable legacy, if carried out it will weaken five decades of precedence, practice and intellectual framework for the extra-territoriality of human rights—which is exactly his intent. Ultimately, these advances have occurred because of the tenuous and at times uncomfortable alliance of countries willing to assume the criticism and responsibility of defending citizen rights, even when it challenged their local authority and sovereignty. 

In stating his claim this week, President Chávez charged that the IACHR was under the thumb of the United States. The allegation is as laughable as it is predictable. The IACHR has weighed in against the United States, on matters of immigration and attacks against journalists covering the Occupy Wall Street Movement, in the same manner it has with other governments.  The IACHR was also at the forefront of trying cases against the government of U.S. ally President Álvaro Uribe of Colombia—hearing dozens of cases—and applying medidas cautelaures to protect critics of the Uribe government.  And in 2009 the IACHR investigated the cases of human rights abuses after the coup in Honduras and has monitored the predictable decline in human rights afterwards. 

None of these positions sat well with the United States or any of the other governments that have been the defendants in their cases. But that’s what an effective, independent judicial system does. The Chávez government’s dismal view of rule of law and independent judicial systems in its own country was clear in the IACHR 2010 report that detailed concerns about the “independence and separation of public powers.” Now it’s just asserting an antiquated notion of national sovereignty to extend its political discretion internationally.

More than asserting Venezuela’s national sovereignty, Chávez’ retrograde government is removing the country from the modern global system. 

The larger question is if the other IACHR member states will rally to defend the system should President Chávez fulfill his promise. Any number of current government officials have benefitted and even been saved by past IACHR decisions. Members of Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s government, President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil and President Ollanta Humala of Peru would not enjoy their positions without the IACHR—not to mention the rights their citizens enjoy.  Will these leaders finally break their partisan silence on President Chávez to defend a regional legacy that has defined and shaped the modern advances of our hemisphere and saved lives?   

Christopher Sabatini is editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas.
Tags: Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

To speak with an expert on this topic, please contact the communications office at: communications@as-coa.org or (212) 277-8384.
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