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Human Rights

Reforms Could Weaken Pan-American Rights Body

WASHINGTON, Dec 7 2012 (IPS) - The pan-regional Organisation of American States (OAS) on Friday received a petition signed by more than 3,000 signatories from throughout the Americas, including four past presidents, expressing a host of concerns over current attempts to reform the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

The event took place at the OAS’s Washington headquarters, during a final phase of input by civil society representatives on the reforms process. In recent months, many have become increasingly worried that the process could irreparably weaken the IACHR’s independence, making it more difficult both for victims of human rights violations to access the commission’s powers and for the commission to ensure that its decisions are implemented.

“These are actions that would limit, if not maim, the commission’s mandate and limit its autonomy,” Iduvina Hernandez Batres, director of the Asociacion para el Estudio y Promocion de la Seguridad en Democracia, a Guatemalan NGO, said in Spanish-language testimony at the OAS on Friday.

“The mechanisms for protection offered by the commission have been invaluable in the fight against impunity, against torture, for the rights of indigenous peoples, and in contributing to the promotion of economic, social and environmental rights … But none of this would have been possible without the guarantee of autonomy and independence.”

Since its creation in 1959, the IACHR has proven to be one of the most effective parts of the otherwise largely moribund 35-member OAS. The new petition, referred to as the Bogota Declaration after its creation in September in that city, cites several of the Inter-American system’s more notable successes, including on amnesty laws, extrajudicial execution and forced disappearance.

Today, under its mandate to ensure compliance with the American Convention on Human Rights, it continues to exert important influence in establishing guidelines on military jurisdiction and freedom of expression, and setting standards on equality across the region.

In such work, the IACHR has inevitably run up against government friction. Increasingly in recent years, certain governments – particularly Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela, as well as Brazil and Peru – have moved to distance themselves from the system.

This push took on new energy in January, when OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza capitulated to growing frustration and backed proposals for a suite of changes to IACHR procedure. In September, Venezuela, long one of the harshest critics of the Inter-American system, announced that it would be leaving the system outright. (More information on the reforms process can be found here and here.)

At the OAS on Friday, many of those gathered, including representatives of 52 civil society organisations from throughout the hemisphere, admitted that the Inter-American system is indeed in need of certain reforms. Yet what could be an opportunity to strengthen the system now appears to be in danger of weakening it.

“When we look at human rights from a historical perspective, we can find just one conclusion,” warned Marco Romero, director of the Colombian Consultoria para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento, on Friday. “Human rights systems are very difficult to build up but can very easily be torn asunder.”

De-funding efficacy

Despite its successes, the IACHR’s efficacy has always been undercut by a chronic lack of funding. In past years, its annual budget of only around four million dollars has severely impacted on the scope of its potential workload, a point prominently noted in the Bogota Declaration petition.

On Tuesday, Secretary-General Insulza proposed a major new initiative to rectify this situation, suggesting the creation of a new capital fund of around 100 million dollars. The proposal was reportedly “well received” by representatives on the OAS permanent council, but some have warned that the financing situation is indicative of a deeper lack of state interest in ensuring a robust Inter-American system.

“Governments, including that of the United States, need to step up their financial support. In 2011, the U.S. contributed 1.5 million dollars, while Spain, which isn’t even a member state, contributed one million,” Jamil Dakwar, director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)’s Human Rights Program, told IPS shortly after he presented to the OAS on Friday.

“This is not only a matter of continuing to effectively use resources, but the commission is simply underfunded. This impacts on its work, its effectiveness and its independence in delivering the kinds of protections for human rights that are expected.”

Dakwar suggests that such miserly funding reflects government hopes to keep the IACHR weak, though he notes that the Inter-American system nonetheless retains its importance as a court of last resort.

As example, he refers to the case of Khaled El-Masri, a German citizen arrested in 2003 in Macedonia, spirited away to a “black site” and allegedly tortured under the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s extraordinary rendition programme on suspicion of involvement in terrorist activities. He was later released on the realisation of mistaken identity, but Dakwar says the U.S. government has never acknowledged any mistreatment.

After El-Masri’s attempts to seek justice failed in the U.S. court system, in 2008 the ACLU brought a petition on his behalf before the IACHR. Although the Inter-American system accepted the petition, giving the U.S. government two months to respond, Dakwar says that Washington has never done so. (The U.S. has not ratified the American Convention on Human Rights but nonetheless remains a party to the commission.)

Yet in 2009, a similar petition was sent to the well-funded European Court of Human Rights. “On the contrary, El-Masri’s case will now be decided this coming Thursday by the highest European court,” he says. “Here you have an example of the U.S. government undermining democracy and rule of law, but more broadly we need to ensure that all governments work harder to implement the commission’s decisions.”

In coming weeks, IACHR and OAS officials will be making policy decisions that will do much to cement a new character for the Inter-American system for years to come, with plans to finalise the reforms process by no later than January.

“The contributions made by the (Inter-American system) are significant, but they still fall short of the region’s needs,” the Bogota Declaration notes. “New challenges to democracy, freedom and human rights continue to emerge; both in terms of new forms of rupture to the Rule of Law and the eruption of violence rooted in organized crime.”

The petition continues: “These facts reaffirm the legitimacy of the Inter-American Court and Commission of Human Rights and the need to improve rather than weaken the system’s efficacy.”

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