For more than 50 years, the human rights system of the Organization of American States (OAS) has served as the last line of defense for citizens facing abusive treatment throughout the hemisphere. It has mediated directly in cases of imminent risk and issued thorough reports that shine light on systemic human rights abuses. Perceived as an international model, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and its special rapporteur on freedom of expression have upheld core democratic principles of due process, separation of powers and freedom of expression.
But when OAS delegates met last year for the 42nd general assembly in Cochabamba, Bolivia, an Ecuador-led bloc won initial approval for a series of changes that would prevent the rapporteur’s office from publishing in-depth reports on freedom of expression, bar the office from seeking independent financial support, and place it under greater control from member states. The changes are part of a broader overhaul of the IACHR’s mandate that will come before the General Assembly for debate in late March.
As now outlined, the overhaul would limit the commission’s ability to issue recommendations, known as precautionary measures, which call on member states to take immediate, corrective action in cases of grave human rights abuses.
The proposal from President Rafael Correa and an allied bloc of countries from the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) was not unexpected. The Ecuadoran president has strongly opposed the commission since it denounced his use of criminal defamation to retaliate against critics in the press.
But Correa accomplished far more. He and his allies won preliminary decisions that could gut the system that protects human rights and press freedom. He also did this with the tacit support of regional heavyweights such as Brazil.
In Bolivia, the ALBA members went so far as to threaten to pull out of the human rights body if it was not restructured to their liking In fact, Venezuela announced its withdrawal from the American Convention on Human Rights in September.
Yet the human rights system did not simply fall victim to an aggressive onslaught by regional leaders who oppose its fundamental mission. It was also left undefended by other regional leaders who had individual grievances with commission decisions and who appeared dissatisfied with the commission’s recently expanding portfolio.
The ALBA bloc took advantage of member states’ weakening support for the human rights system, persuading the General Assembly to allow its proposal to move forward outside the usual review process. Instead of having the IACHR make its own determination, the OAS Permanent Council, made up of ambassadors from member states, has been charged with drafting a statutory overhaul that will encompass the ALBA recommendations.
Brazil, in particular, stands out for its failure to defend the system. Its leaders were still angered by a 2011 IACHR ruling that called on President Dilma Rousseff’s government to suspend construction of the Belo Monte dam in northern Brazil. The IACHR found the Brazilian government had not properly consulted with Indigenous groups before developing the $17 billion hydroelectric project. An angry Rousseff, who had overseen the project as energy minister before becoming president, suspended Brazil’s annual contribution to the OAS in 2011 and withdrew the country’s OAS ambassador.
Without the support of Brazil, the system’s staunchest defenders were the United States and Canada. They are also perhaps its most ineffective. Neither country has ratified the American Convention on Human Rights, reflecting their beliefs in the pre-eminence of their own legal systems. That position has left them incapable of parrying nations such as Ecuador, which also invokes sovereignty in making its case to rein in the regional human rights system.
OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza said publicly that he would oppose efforts to weaken the human rights system, but his actions in Bolivia were not consistent with those statements. In response to the ALBA offensive, Insulza proposed an overhaul of the statute that governs the IACHR’s actions. His proposal broadly outlined changes that would allow governments to set the terms of IACHR monitoring, impose delays in the publication of IACHR findings and restrict the IACHR’s power to issue precautionary measures. His statement seemed to recognize the potential new limits to be placed on the IACHR: “The OAS and its member states need an autonomous and strong commission and an autonomous and strong court of human rights. But these bodies also need to take into consideration, in the course of their work, the points of view of the democratic governments of the hemisphere.”
Limiting the role of the IACHR would have huge repercussions in the hemisphere’s human rights system. Since its creation in 1959, the independent body has played a key role in documenting and reporting abuses committed by dictatorial regimes in the 1970s and 1980s. As democracy took hold in the region, the system began to address the legacy of the dictatorships and their impact on democratic institutions. The commission was instrumental, for example, in documenting and condemning the systematic disappearances and torture that occurred under Peru’s Alberto Fujimori in the 1990s.
The special rapporteur on freedom of expression, created in 1997, has emphasized the need to end impunity in crimes against the press, has denounced government censorship, has campaigned against criminal defamation laws, and has promoted access to information. Thanks to its efforts, laws criminalizing desacato or disrespect, have been repealed in Paraguay, Costa Rica, Peru, Chile, Honduras, Panama, Nicaragua, Uruguay, and Bolivia. Mexico has decriminalized defamation laws at the federal level, while Argentina eliminated libel and slander on matters of public interest. Through the 2000s, the office highlighted indirect censorship brought about by inequitable distribution of government advertising and radio and television licenses.
The rapporteur has also had a significant impact on the lives of individual journalists. When Colombian journalist Claudia Julieta Duque discovered in 2009 that she was being followed and her communications intercepted by the national intelligence service, the IACHR intervened and called on the state to guarantee her personal safety.
The IACHR will need strong supporters in the coming months. Countries such as Mexico, Panama, Chile, and Uruguay could play an important role in softening final details of the overhaul when the OAS assembly convenes in March. Those four nations, which have expressed general support for the commission’s autonomy, could join with the IACHR’s strongest supporters to turn the consensus against the ALBA bloc and help to ensure the preservation of human rights in our hemisphere.
Article adapted from an essay in the forthcoming Attacks on the Press: Journalism on the World’s Frontlines.