In her novel, In the Time of the Butterflies, Julia Álvarez describes an international mission to visit the Mirabal sisters when two of the four women were in jail for opposing the Rafael Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic. Three of the sisters were later assassinated on November 25, 1960—a date later designated by the United Nations as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
That mission was an historic landmark in the Americas: the first on-site visit carried out by what became the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).
From its ambitious creation in 1959 as an autonomous organ of the Organization of American States (OAS), with seven independent individual members, the IACHR has grown into a forceful advocate of the rights and freedoms of citizens in the face of government abuses. It has denounced serious and systematic violations in countries such as Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, and Cuba, and it played an important role in ushering in the region’s return to democracy in the 1980s. Since its first official mission in 1961 to investigate the human rights situation in the Dominican Republic, the IACHR has conducted approximately 70 visits to 23 OAS member states to investigate general human rights situations or specific cases.
But today, the IACHR is faced with a serious (and arguably extra-legal) challenge that could reverse five decades of achievement in the hemisphere’s human rights system.
The challenge was sparked by Brazil’s decision in May 2011 to suspend relations with the IACHR after the human rights body requested that it suspend construction of the Belo Monte Dam in the Amazon rainforest on the grounds that it threatened Indigenous rights. In August 2012, a federal appeals court agreed with the decision to stop construction until Indigenous groups were properly consulted.
Brazil’s move against the IACHR was supported by the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), which formed a working group in the OAS to “reflect” on how to adapt the IACHR to “new times.” In December 2011, five months after its first meeting, the special working group proposed a series of recommendations to reform the system by consensus of the region’s 34 states.
The proposals focused on four main areas. The first would limit the granting of precautionary measures—the mechanism used by the IACHR to stop the Belo Monte Dam construction, as well as to provide protection to threatened, at-risk human rights activists. According to the working group, the granting of such measures lacks sufficient regulation and rigor.
A second proposal would block the IACHR from producing more detailed analyses about states with the worst human rights conditions in its annual report, on the grounds that singling out individual states is discriminatory. Third, the working group calls for lowering the profile of the IACHR’s special rapporteur for freedom of expression, whose defense of the free press has made the governments of countries such as Ecuador and Venezuela uncomfortable. A fourth set of recommendations would curtail the IACHR’s independence by prohibiting it from soliciting its own funds—a necessary task, since OAS member states do not provide adequate funding—and from retaining its independent budget oversight.
Once these governments realized that they had enough strength to set their campaign in motion, they fine-tuned their strategy. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa traveled in June 2012 to the OAS General Assembly in Cochabamba, Bolivia, to personally lead the crusade against the “international bureaucracy.”
As a result, the General Assembly went from proposing some “recommendations” for the IACHR to proposals that will have to be implemented not by the IACHR itself, but by a special session of the OAS General Assembly in March 2013. This means that one of the region’s oldest and most effective instruments for strengthening democracy could be radically transformed without citizen or IACHR participation in the approval process.
When the American Convention on Human Rights was adopted in 1969, the drafters were already conscious of the possibility that states could band together to destroy oversight bodies with which they were bound to disagree. For this reason, a safety mechanism was established: reforms to the statute establishing the IACHR could only be considered by the General Assembly when based on a proposal from the IACHR itself. Nevertheless, the governments pushing the reform are sidestepping this restriction, and defending a dubious theory of state sovereignty to impose their reform on the inter-American system.
For these states, putting the reform of the IACHR statute on the OAS agenda is relatively easy—getting them that much closer to their goal of weakening the body. Under OAS rules, a temporary majority of just 18 votes is enough to approve a measure to reform the IACHR.
So far, there has been no strong opposition within the OAS. If the reforms pass, the IACHR’s allies will have given in without a fight to the ALBA coalition and their supporters in this effort. It must be stated clearly: while Venezuela and Ecuador have been the strongest champions of this move, they have only been able get this far with the tacit support of states such as Brazil, Colombia and Argentina.
At first glance, the arguments of the reform supporters may seem reasonable: modernizing the use of precautionary measures; eliminating discrimination against certain states in the IACHR’s reports; reforming the IACHR’s rapporteurs; and reinforcing the financial base of the system. But the fact is that the proposals would undermine the IACHR. They would render precautionary measures inoperable and weaken the IACHR’s ability to call attention to the countries with the worst human rights conditions, such as Colombia. At the same time, they would plunge the inter-American system of human rights protection into a financial crisis.
If member states really wanted to improve the regional system for protecting human rights, it would be best to let the IACHR fix the system through its internal reform process. The insistence that a General Assembly of states administer the reforms shows that the objective is to weaken the system.
We have arrived at a point that is ironic as well as tragic. The inter-American system was developed when the region suffered under some of the globe’s most infamous dictatorships. Now it faces destruction at the hands of democratic governments—many of which call themselves leftist or progressive—and whose existence was made possible only by the sacrifice and commitment of people such as the Mirabal “butterflies,” who gave their own lives to protect human rights.