The Organization of American States Preserves Democratic Charter–For Now!

A high wire act played out over a 12-hour session of the General Assembly last week at the Organization of American States (OAS): Ecuador and Venezuela threatened to walk out unless their demands were met. Considerable tensions existed within the Hall of the Americas as the foreign ministers witnessed another threat to the organization’s integrity. This time, the contest was over the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

Since 1959, the IACHR has taken up and defended the rights of children, of women, of indigenous communities, of sexual minorities, persons deprived of liberty, afro-descendents, people with disabilities, migrants, defenders of human rights: in short, people in vulnerable situations. The IAHCR and its judicial arm, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights have continued to denounce and sanction violations of human rights. Throughout the Chilean, Argentinean and Brazilian military dictatorships of the 1970s and early 1980s, the commission and the court played key roles in making visible the victims of abuse. Despite perennial criticisms of the OAS for its failure to defend democratic institutions, the IACHR and the court are considered to be the main collective achievements in defending the rights of individual citizens in the Western Hemisphere.

On September 11, 2001, at the same time as the United States suffered critical attacks, the OAS General Assembly reaffirmed that the promotion and protection of human rights is a basic prerequisite for the existence of a democratic society. The Inter-American Democratic Charter was signed on this historic day in U.S. history. In its Article 8 it gave the right to “any person who consider that his or her human rights have been violated may lodge a complaint or petition before the inter-American system for protection and promotion of human rights.” Individual citizens were recognized as legitimate actors in the consolidation of democracy.

It was therefore disturbing when in 2010, Ecuador and Venezuela raised three complaints about the IACHR: the budget should be limited to contributions from member states and not from observer nations and civil society; the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression should receive less funds and no more than the amount granted to other OAS rapporteurs; and, third, the headquarters for the IACHR should move out of Washington, preferably to Argentina.

The demands of Ecuador and Venezuela were discussed for over 22 months and through 37 meetings of IACHR and 29 working groups, the presentation of 98 documents from civil society, five academic meetings, three hemispheric audiences and one Extraordinary Session of the OAS. When the sought-for reforms were raised at the 44th Special Session of the OAS General Assembly last week, Ecuador and Venezuela threatened to walk out if their demands were not addressed.

Ecuador and Venezuela – with Bolivian and Nicaraguan support – called to limit the IACHR budget. This was an effort both to limit outside influences on the human rights commission as well as to reduce, even further its effectiveness. Currently, 55 percent of the IACHR’s budget comes from the OAS, the remaining 45 percent comes from member countries, observer nations and civil society. In 2012, the IACHR had an annual budget of $10 million with which to pay rapporteurs, attorneys and staff. With only 34 attorneys for 35 member countries and 31 other staff members, the work of investigating the 448 complaints submitted in 2012 is already inadequate because it enables consideration of only 10 percent of the complaints. Rather than reduce further the IACHR budget, the commission has requested doubling its budget to $20 million in order to hire more attorneys and consider more complaints.

The second complaint was more serious, namely a reduction in the budget for Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression. The work of this office is dedicated to preserving “the right to seek, receive, and disseminate information and opinions freely.” (Declaration of Principles on the Right to Freedom of Expression). The call to reduce the budget for this office was a demand to limit, if not curtail its effectiveness. In both Ecuador and Venezuela, the press has been censured, and in certain cases closed, because of stories critical of the government.

The third complaint requesting that the IACHR move out of Washington did not receive the same objection. Both Costa Rica and Peru offered to host the commission, should it have to leave the OAS building and support structure thereof.

It is noteworthy that Mexico, which has received more complaints before the IACHR in the last two years than any other nation within the OAS, rejected the demands of Venezuela and Ecuador. Colombia, which during its civil war with the FARC had been the object of criticism from numerous, alleged victims of human rights, also rejected the demands. While Bolivia and Nicaragua joined in the Ecuadoran demand, the Caribbean members of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (known by its Spanish acronym ALBA) did not do so; nor did Peru, Costa Rica, Brazil, Canada and the United States. The four ALBA continental nations were marginalized and on this occasion failed to modify the rules and process of the OAS. Only Argentina prevented the walk-out of Ecuador and Venezuela by presenting a motion that enabled the OAS to continue debating the three reforms.

The contest will continue and Ecuador will seek to lead its ALBA allies in rejecting liberal democratic concepts, such as human rights and press freedom. The significance of the 44th Extraordinary General Assemblyof the OAS is that the ALBA countries failed to undermine the democratic principles of the Inter-American system. If anything, the criticism has strengthened the resolve of the Western Hemisphere to retain its ideals and maintain a process by which individuals can bring complaints before an international body that accepts the sovereignty of the people, not the governors.