Human rights in the Americas
Chipping at the foundations
The regional justice system comes under attack from the countries whose citizens need it most
Jun 9th 2012 | from the print edition
LIKE most clubs of governments, the Organisation of American States (OAS) is widely seen as little more than a debating society. It makes decisions by consensus, and cannot force its members to do anything against their will.
But many of those who complain about the OAS’s lack of effectiveness still concede that its watchdogs, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, have proved their worth. The IACHR consists of seven jurists, elected by the OAS general assembly from lists proposed by member states, and monitors allegations of abuses in the region. It can litigate at the Inter-American Court in Costa Rica, whose jurisdiction is recognised by most Latin American countries.
The tribunal’s prohibition on amnesties for the crimes of Latin America’s military dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s has often been cited in court decisions overturning them. The commission was instrumental in cataloguing the wrongdoing of Alberto Fujimori, Peru’s president in the 1990s. More recently, Mexico and Chile announced they would begin trying soldiers accused of human-rights abuses in the civilian courts rather than military ones, following a ruling by the Inter-American Court. “Everything we have achieved on human-rights issues in the region in the last 30 years is in some way a result of the work of the IACHR,” says José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director of Human Rights Watch, a pressure group.
However, human-rights monitors are seldom popular with the governments they criticise, and the more diligently they work, the more hackles they raise. In recent years the IACHR has trained much of its fire on the autocratic members of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), a mainly leftist group of countries led by Venezuela that includes Ecuador and Bolivia. To varying degrees, the courts in all those countries have come under the sway of the executive. Last year the commission won a ruling requiring Venezuela to end a ban on Leopoldo López, an opposition politician, from running for office. It also directed Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s president, to suspend a verdict that would have jailed the editors of a newspaper for libelling him. Mr Correa complied, but Hugo Chávez, his Venezuelan counterpart, did not.
ALBA is trying to rid itself of this nuisance. Mr Correa says the IACHR protects the media’s “freedom of extortion”, and Roy Chaderton, Venezuela’s ambassador to the OAS, calls it an “instrument of the empire [the United States] comprised of the complicit and the pusillanimous”.
The OAS has dismissed such criticisms in the past. But the ALBA countries are no longer alone in griping about the commission. The IACHR has become more ambitious in the past decade, expanding from its historic purview of political repression to include gay rights, labour rights and indigenous rights. That has put it in conflict with Brazil, Latin America’s heavyweight.
In April 2011 the IACHR ruled that the government of Dilma Rousseff had not sufficiently consulted with local populations before authorising a giant dam in the Amazon, and requested that construction be halted. Brazil had debated the dam for years, and Ms Rousseff herself had overseen it as energy minister before becoming president. Seeing the ruling as a violation of sovereignty, Ms Rousseff withdrew her ambassador from the OAS and stopped paying dues to the organisation. In December Peru also called for the commission to be reformed, after the IACHR filed a suit over the killing of three guerrillas during a hostage rescue in Lima in 1997.
That put pressure on José Miguel Insulza, the OAS secretary-general, to open a debate about the IACHR. In January the OAS agreed to endorse proposals that would weaken the commission gravely. They would make it harder for people in danger to get the IACHR to order governments to protect them, and stop the IACHR from publishing its annual review of freedom of speech. Mr Insulza later suggested letting countries delay the publication of the IACHR’s specific reports for up to a year as well, and to grant them a right of reply. But the recommendations were not binding, and the IACHR ignored them.
The commission may not be able to do so for much longer. On June 4th and 5th, in Bolivia, the OAS held its annual meeting. Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua all threatened to pull out of the IACHR if it is not reformed to their liking. (Mr Chávez had already announced such plans in April, although Mr Insulza says Venezuela cannot do so without leaving the OAS altogether.) Brazil and Peru renewed their own calls for change. The United States and Canada objected to the proposals, but they are in no position to defend the IACHR, since they have not ratified the treaty that established the Inter-American Court.
The OAS wound up agreeing to draft a new reform plan, and to meet again within six months to confirm it. If approved, it will be the first change to the IACHR’s powers without the commission’s own consent since it was founded in 1959. José de Jesús Orozco, the IACHR’s chairman, made little effort to hide his concern. “The autonomy and independence of the commission are the source of its credibility and an essential requirement for its efficiency,” he said after the OAS meeting.
The commission has not yet lost the battle. The OAS’s requirement for consensus means that ALBA’s efforts to undermine the IACHR could be blocked easily. But the commission will now have to fight to retain the independence it has long taken for granted.