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Human Rights

Nobel Laureates Back “Strong, Autonomous” Inter-American Rights System

WASHINGTON, Mar 8 2013 (IPS) - Six women recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday lauded the work of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), offering additional high-level support for the institution just weeks ahead of a critical vote on a reforms process that many worry could irreparably weaken the Inter-American system.

In an open letter released on International Women’s Day, the six recipients note the IACHR has been responsible for exposing human rights violations suffered by “millions” of women and girls in the Americas.

Our concern is what the impact might be on women human rights defenders, should the powers of the Inter-American system be curtailed.

They also recognise the half-century-old institution as a “pioneer in recognizing and incorporating the needs and suggestions expressed by the feminist and women’s movement, and in capturing them in protective mechanisms, as well as exposing discrimination against women in legal frameworks and in State practices.”

The letter was spearheaded by Jody Williams, a 1997 Nobel laureate from the United States recognised in particular for her work on banning landmines, and currently chair of the Nobel Women’s Initiative. She was joined by Nobel awardees from the past three-plus decades, including Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Mairead Maguire, Shirin Ebadi, Lehmah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman.

“[W]e need the [Inter-American system] to be strong, independent, autonomous, and efficient in order to continue responding in a timely manner to human rights violations,” they wrote.

“Today, we express our gratitude and our most energetic support … [and] call on the governments of the Americas to express their unequivocal support for the Inter-American System for its role in defending the human rights of all.”

Since its creation in 1959, the IACHR has proven to be one of the most effective parts of the otherwise largely moribund 35-member Organisation of American States (OAS). Since 1978, it has been tasked with overseeing the American Convention on Human Rights.

Yet in such work, the IACHR has run afoul of several of the region’s governments. Some – particularly Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela, as well as Brazil and Peru – have recently moved to distance themselves from the system’s powers.

This push took on new energy in early 2012, when OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza capitulated to growing frustration and backed proposals for a suite of changes to IACHR rules of procedure. Ecuador is now trying to create a separate system altogether, while Venezuela has said it will step out of the Inter-American system by September.

Meanwhile, anxiety from grassroots organisations has continued to grow. In November, some 3,000 people, including multiple former presidents, signed a petition warning against the reforms.

Particular scrutiny has been given to proposals that could diminish the IACHR’s ability to publish reports on countries’ rights abuses, significantly weaken its rapporteur on freedom of expression, and moderate its ability to demand immediate actions to protect groups or individuals. (More information on the reforms process can be found here and here.)

“Our concern is what the impact might be on women human rights defenders, should the powers of the Inter-American system be curtailed,” Rachel Vincent, a Nobel Women’s Initiative coordinator of the new letter, told IPS.

“Women where we work are on the frontlines of defending their communities against, for instance, large-scale land grabs, and as a result face high levels of violence. But the state actors who should be protecting them are all too often part of the problem.”

Faced with high levels of impunity, she says, the Inter-American system offers such women their only potential avenue of recourse.

“Should this system be diluted, you would be hard-pressed to find another mechanism in the region that could so effectively help human rights defenders on the ground facing impunity in their own countries,” she says. “This is not isolated concern of any one group in any one country – it’s shared at the grassroots level throughout the region.”

Following a series of consultations in recent months, finalised reforms proposals are set to be voted upon on Mar. 22. On Friday, at the end of a two-day session at the OAS headquarters here in Washington, nearly all member states expressed support for the pending changes.

Convention tinkering

The Nobel letter comes the day after civil society organisations were given a third and final opportunity to voice their concerns over the reforms process. While that consultation process has been criticised for being cursory, it does appear that the member states have taken certain recommendations into consideration, including over issues of transparency.

Yet Thursday’s proceedings also included an announcement that reportedly surprised activists and state representatives alike.

The Nicaraguan ambassador, Denis Ronaldo Moncada Colindres, who currently holds the OAS Permanent Council’s rotating presidency, tabled a resolution proposing reforms to the American Convention on Human Rights itself. The proposal, which some say was drafted without the knowledge of OAS diplomats, runs counter to recommendations made by a working group on the IACHR process.

“That was certainly a shock, given that many countries and civil society organisations thought there was already overwhelming consensus on following the working group’s recommendations that there was no need for reform of the convention,” Viviana Krsticevic, executive director of the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), a Washington advocacy group, told IPS.

“To have the president of the Permanent Council come out with a position so radically different from the consensus – that was really out of the blue.”

The draft proposal would call on the OAS secretary-general to draw up proposed amendments to the convention based on recommendations made by states that are party to the convention. That would specifically exclude the United States and Canada among others, as they have not ratified the convention.

“Modifying some of this language could significantly impact the commission’s jurisdiction or procedures, so putting the convention on the table for modification is worrisome, to say the least,” Lisa Reinsberg, executive director of the International Justice Resource Center, a U.S. advocacy group, told IPS.

“It remains unclear why some states consider it desirable to make changes beyond those proposed by the commission itself, particularly when many of the proposals concern aspects of the commission’s work that are not governed in any detail by the … convention, such as the commission’s monitoring and promotion activities.”

OAS member states are now scheduled to discuss the Nicaragua proposal early next week. While a vote on the proposed IACHR reforms is scheduled for Mar. 22, Krsticevic says that thus far members have only engaged in substantive discussion on two out of seven major issues.

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