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Human Rights

Controversial Inter-American Reforms Process to Continue

WASHINGTON, Mar 23 2013 (IPS) - The 35-member Organisation of American States (OAS) on Friday voted unanimously to approve a series of reforms to the Inter-American human rights system, but stepped back from proposals that had caused the greatest concern among civil society groups.

Nonetheless, rights advocates are expressing frustration that Friday’s highly anticipated vote did not bring a close to the reforms process. Instead, the final resolution mandates the OAS “to continue the dialogue regarding the core aspects for strengthening” the Inter-American system, which includes the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and Court of Human Rights.

“By adopting this document, the states [are] supporting essential elements of a robust system that will continue to be relevant into the future,” Lisa Reinsberg, executive director of the International Justice Resource Center, an advocacy group, told IPS.

“However, our hope had been that today’s session would definitively put an end to debate on the reform process. Instead, the commission will now be required to invest more time and resources into responding to suggestions, diverting attention away from important human rights concerns.”

The controversial two-year reforms process had been seen as potentially devastating for a system lauded by the rights community but which has increasingly frustrated governments of the region. Since its creation in 1959, the IACHR has proven to be one of the most effective parts of the otherwise largely moribund OAS, since 1978 overseeing the American Convention on Human Rights.

While the push for reforms is officially characterised as a strengthening process, it has been spearheaded by the governments of Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua, each of which have expressed dissatisfaction with the current system.

“It is important to remember that it is the commission that has the authority to modify its rules and practices, and that the commission is intended to be autonomous from the OAS political organs,” Reinsberg says, noting that on Monday the IACHR passed new Rules of Procedure.

“Overall, those changes are generally positive and increase transparency for users of the Inter-American system. While the changes include some concessions to states, the commission held its ground where it mattered.”

No “real strengthening”

Meanwhile, longstanding worries over the broader strength of the system – particularly its chronic underfunding – were only partially addressed. Indeed, the funding issue goes to the heart of the debate on both sides.

“This process did not achieve a real strengthening of the Inter-American System … nor has the process resulted in an increase in funding,” Tirza Flores, a Honduran magistrate, stated in Spanish outside the OAS headquarters Friday morning, speaking on behalf of more than 150 NGOs and thousands of petitioners.

“We call on the states to comply with their obligation to finance the commission, instead of suffocating it by limiting or conditioning its external funding.”

Flores, too, called for an end to the “political process” of revising the system’s procedures. Yet this was upset by a last-minute proposal by Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua to “continue the dialogue”, stating that the reforms process had “failed to complete its work”.

In their resolution, the four countries called for discussion to continue on a half-dozen issues. These included precautionary measures (the power to require immediate action to protect groups or individuals), the commission’s annual publication on the human rights records of individual countries, and the functioning of the thematic rapporteurs.

This bloc is also demanding discussion on longstanding frustrations that the Inter-American system is inordinately controlled by the United States and other “external” countries.

These disagreements led several delegations to express concern that Friday’s vote would bring the Inter-American system a step closer to fracturing, particularly as Ecuador and Bolivia nearly refused to vote for the final resolution. Venezuela and Trinidad & Tobago have already stated they will withdraw from the system, while Ecuador and Bolivia have now issued similar warnings.

Funding discrepancy

On Friday, this schism played out in the backroom negotiations over the resolution’s final wording.

These revolved around three particular disagreements: over the implications of “full financing” of the IACHR, over whether the system’s external funding should be able to be “earmarked”, and, especially, over attempts to “strengthen” and “adequately finance” the thematic rapporteurships.

Much of the frustration expressed by these countries and others on Friday dealt with a central discrepancy at the heart of the Inter-American system.

On the one hand, the United States is the IACHR’s largest single funder – offering around 1.3 of its 10-million-dollar annual budget – and hosts its headquarters. On the other hand, for decades Washington (and Canada, another prominent funder) has refused to sign on to the American Convention on Human Rights.

To make matters worse, around a third of the Inter-American system’s budget comes from the European Union, which is otherwise not connected to the system.

“The control and definition of its policies are not in our hands, but rather are in the hands of others,” Ricardo Patino, the Ecuadorian foreign minister, stated in Spanish-language testimony on Friday, calling the situation ridiculous and unacceptable.

The impact of this funding discrepancy, Patino suggested, is that the Inter-American system reflects the ideology and priorities of its primary donors rather than of the rest of the member states. For instance, he noted, the IACHR rapporteurship on freedom of expression – seen as a darling of the United States and European Union – receives far more funding than do others on women, children or economic justice.

Patino also proposed creating a new rapporteurship, on torture and extrajudicial killing, while making references to the United States’ armed “drone” programme. He also promised that Ecuador would pay for such a position.

This would be a significant turnaround, as Ecuador reportedly offered just 1,500 dollars in funding to the Inter-American system over the past three years. Likewise, Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua made no donations between 2010 and 2012.

“A clear majority of the region’s governments support the commission’s response to the reforms process,” Viviana Krsticevic, executive director of the Center for Justice and International Law, a Washington advocacy group, said in a statement to IPS immediately following the resolution’s vote.

“However, the governments did not pledge the additional 10 million dollars needed for the Commission to function effectively.”

On Friday, nearly all delegations made pleas for the countries of the Americas to come together, take ownership of and fully fund the Inter-American system – at a cost, one delegate noted, of just two cents per citizen. With the new resolution likewise reaffirming its commitment to provide “full funding” for the Inter-American system, this is now a point on which all of the region’s countries, for the moment, formally agree.

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