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The rebellion Chaderton referred to has been underway for some time, with Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Bolivia pushing for reforms to a human rights system that they argue is politically biased in the service of U.S. interests. Friday’s extraordinary session was expected to mark the culmination of two years of discussion by OAS members about how to reform the Inter-American system, and more specifically, its two main bodies: the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, both of which have been responsible for protecting human rights in the hemisphere for decades. Far from “pusillanimous,” the commission has investigated thousands of human rights petitions and promoted conventions on some of the most important issues in the hemisphere, including torture and forced disappearances; economic, social and cultural rights; and violence against women.
The Inter-American Commission’s main detractors are some of the countries whose human rights records have drawn the most scrutiny from the commission in recent years. In Chapter 4 of its annual report, the commission identifies “member states whose human rights practices merit special attention.” Venezuela has received such “special attention” in the commission’s annual reports for most of the past decade. In September 2012, Venezuela renounced the American Convention on Human Rights, one of the founding pillars of the commission, meaning that complaints against Caracas can no longer be brought before the Inter-American Court after September 2013.
But the representatives of Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Bolivia insist that their reforms will strengthen, not weaken, the commission. And in a recent tour of Latin America to promote the reforms, Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño reminded everyone of the United States’ own hypocritical record on human rights, from drone strikes and torture to the fact that the U.S., despite being the seat of the commission, has yet to even ratify the American Convention.
As a result, Ecuador and a number of other states want to relocate the commission to one of the 23 countries that are party to the convention, citing the concept of “universality” -- the idea that there should be universal adherence within the Americas to the Inter-American human rights system. It seems unlikely that the commission will relocate any time soon, but other proposed reforms could be more immediate and damaging, including a proposal to restrict external funding for both the commission and the special rapporteurship on freedom of expression.
The minutiae of the commission’s budget might seem trivial. As Argentine Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman -- whose father, the journalist Jacobo Timerman, was a political prisoner and survivor of Argentina’s 1976-1983 dictatorship -- memorably remarked Friday, “We victims didn’t ask who financed the commission or if there was or wasn’t universality. We were simply grateful that a voice for those persecuted on political grounds could be heard by an international commission . . . to denounce what was happening.”
But critics of the commission contend that external funding from countries and NGOs outside the region is disproportionately channeled to the special rapporteurship on freedom of expression. Thus, Ecuador -- one of the countries the commission has criticized for curtailing press freedoms -- has proposed that external funding be phased out, and that no funding provided to the commission should be earmarked, for freedom of expression or anything else.
But the commission received only 47 percent of its overall budget from the OAS general fund last year, with external sources, such as European Union nations and NGOs such as the Swedish Foundation for Human Rights, providing all the remaining funding. Unless the OAS member states are prepared to give more, eliminating external funding would financially cripple the commission.
Uruguayan Ambassador to the OAS Milton Romani, a former political activist exiled in Argentina during Uruguay’s 1973-1985 dictatorship, was one of the most adamant voices defending the funding of the commission. “We support the idea of reforming the IACHR . . . assuming the compromise of adequate financing,” Romani said. Simply denouncing the commission as a "tool of the ‘Empire,’” he added, “fails to take into account the potential of the commission to confront impunity and dictatorships.”
That appears to be where the line in the sand was drawn, at least for now. After more than 12 hours of debate and some compromise language proposed by Argentina that averted a total impasse, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela eventually backed down from their proposals to restrict the funding of the commission and move its headquarters. But they also won a notable concession: the ability to hold a continuing dialogue on reforms to the system.
Human rights groups are worried that the continuous follow-up by member states could prevent the commission from moving forward and evaluating the impact of proposed reforms. According to Viviana Krsticevic, the executive director of the Center for Justice and International Law, the problem is not the existence of “an intellectual, open political debate,” but the creation of “a structured process at the OAS where you can have a continuous meddling by a group of countries in the everyday workings of the commission.”
The larger takeaway from the debate on the Inter-American human rights system is that change has already arrived in the OAS, reflecting a larger change in the power dynamics of the hemisphere. That is not necessarily bad in and of itself, but if it comes at the expense of the victims of human rights abuses in the Americas and the international body that is often their last line of protection, “spring” seems very far away indeed.
Mari Hayman is a policy associate for the Americas Society and Council of the Americas and an associate editor for Americas Quarterly.