“A Model in Crisis? The Inter-American Human Rights System”, an article by Dr. Leonel Fernández

June 13, 2016

From this Monday, June 13, to Wednesday, June 15, the Dominican Republic will host the 46th General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS). This year’s focus is on strengthening institutions for sustainable development in the Americas.

The meeting comes at a delicate moment for our region – a moment when several countries face economic, social, and political crises. Hosting this OAS General Assembly thus puts our country at the
epicenter of important debates on the challenges and opportunities looming over our continent.

That said, it is not only the OAS member states that are now facing difficulties. It is also the OAS itself, currently weathering a crisis that has shaken one of its most notable bodies: the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

This crisis has been exacerbated by the fact that since 2013, donor states have reduced their support for the body by
some 50 percent, prompting the cancellation of its next two sessions, originally scheduled for June and October of this year, due to lack of funding.

This budgetary tightening would require the human rights protection body to remove 40 percent of its staff from its payroll, in turn significantly hampering its operations capacity.
In 2016, only Argentina, the United States, Peru, and Uruguay have made voluntary contributes to the IACHR. Colombia, formerly one
of the Commission’s most important donors, has made no contribution whatsoever throughout the course of this year. Similarly, Ecuador’s most recent contribution came in 2011, for the meager sum of US$1,500.

The Causes of a Crisis
During a recent meeting of the Permanent Council, Mexico’s representative requested reflection to determine why the Commission has systematically received fewer financial resources, and
why certain states have doubted or lost confidence completely in the efficacy of the system.

The truth is that this crisis is not solely economic – it also relates to the progressive deterioration of confidence amongst OAS member states in their human rights protection institutions.

This is the case, for example, of the Dominican Republic itself, the subject of a series of unfortunate decisions by the Inter-American Court in which we saw a lack of
impartiality, clear prejudice, a basic lack of understanding of the facts, and overreach in its decisions.

For its part, the Inter-American Commission has declined to recognize the economic, institutional, and humane efforts made by our country, accusing us of violating human rights through supposed structural racism.

In Bolivia, the government announced its intention not to recognize the contentious jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court on the
understanding that it has not acted impartially. In Mexico, in March of this year, the government accused the Inter-American Commission of displaying a noted bias in its reports, which did not reflect Mexico’s territorial reality or the state’s efforts in achieving certain improvements.

In the OAS Permanent Council’s most recent session, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, and Guatemala brought up their lack of satisfaction with the work of the
Inter-American Commission, questioning whether the member states’ unwillingness to make financial donations might perhaps be a response to the lack of transparency, efficiency, and impartiality of the regional body.

The Mexican ambassador spoke more forcefully, stressing, “All perceptions or images, right or wrong, of partiality or politicization in some [of the Commission’s] cases must be combatted.”

Inter-American System of Human Rights

The OAS is the first international organization of a regional character to have existed in the world. Likewise, it was the first to respond to the call in Chapter VIII of the UN Charter regarding the role regional organizations should assume in peacekeeping and conflict resolution.

Despite the backdrop of the succession of Cold War-era conflicts and so-called proxy wars that impacted our region, in the period
following its founding the OAS managed to establish a bedrock pillar of regional justice with the Inter-American Human Rights System.

This system is mainly composed of American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man (1948) and later the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (1959).
Ten years later, in 1969, the OAS member states approved the American Convention on Human Rights that would give birth to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights after
entering into force a decade later, in 1979.

Since its creation the Inter-American System has unquestionably managed to secure important successes, the greatest of them being the creation of a safeguard mechanism for the rights of citizens, who until then had faced vulnerabilities in the face of state excesses.

During the 80s, the Commission played a key role in denouncing disappearances and crimes against humanity committed by the Latin American
dictatorships of that epoch.
At that time, the region had not reached the level of institutional development to guarantee basic rights within its territory, and thus the Inter-American System of Human Rights served as a sort of guide to their effective protection.

Nonetheless, starting with the democratic transition that began in our region in 1978, the member states have advanced enormously in the protection of human rights. But the Inter-American System, at
times ignorant of these advances, has remained the same, creating tensions and conflicts with the member states. It’s thus become necessary to consider implementing a wholesale reform of its operations mechanisms.

As a result of these tensions and conflicts, of the 35 states that make up the OAS, 13 of them – mostly Caribbean countries, as well as the United States and Canada – do not recognize the competence of the Inter-American Court.

This means that from the start, nearly a third of member states have not conformed to the OAS’s human rights protection system, damaging its efficacy and limiting its reach.

The Principles of Justice
In Ecuador, the large number of processes opened against it in the Inter-American Commission – 40 in just four years – has prompted violations and open criticism of the Inter-American System from the Ecuadorian

Furthermore, the compliance rate for Inter-American Court decisions ordering changes to internal law stands at just 20 percent of cases. Among other decisions, just 6 of the 100 released in 2008 were complied with.

In recent decades, Brazil, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago, and Venezuela have suspended payments to the organization and have temporarily withdrawn their ambassadors. They have threatened to withdraw, or have in
fact withdrawn, from the Inter-American System entirely.

All this implies a worrying situation. It reflects an erosion of the Court’s authority, a lack of understanding of its faculties as a jurisdictional body, and a perception of decline and irrelevance for both the Court and the Commission.

This decline might reflect states’ conviction that the organs of the Inter-American System have overreached in their actions, leading to a
situation of delegitimation and a crisis of confidence.

In the future, the Organization of American States, like its members, must work to strengthen its human rights protection system, at the same time displaying enough transparency and impartiality to revitalize member states’ confidence in the work of the Commission and the Inter-American Court.

The meeting to be held from Monday in the Dominican capital represents an ideal opportunity to
move in this direction with proposals and initiatives that – while respecting the sovereignty of nations and the role of the states – serve to guarantee the dignity of citizens.

May that be so.

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