Failed Efforts To Weaken the Inter-American Human Rights System Under the Guise of Reform

A prior post discussed the March 22, 2013, resolution by the General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) that strengthened the Inter-American Human Rights System, especially the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (“Commission”).

In so doing, the OAS rejected efforts to weaken the Commission under the guise of reform proposals that had been offered by Ecuador and other states that the Commission has criticized (Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua).

We now examine the background to that surreptitious effort to weaken that System and the debate at the March 22nd General Assembly meeting

Background

1. Multilateral Treaties and Other Instruments Regarding the Right of Free Expression.

The right of free expression by the media and others is well established in international law.

The United Nation’s General Assembly’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 in Article 19 states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” In 1966 this was put into legally enforceable form in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which entered into force in 1976.

To like effect is the American Convention on Human Rights, which was adopted by the OAS in 1969 and which entered into force in 1978. Its Article 13(1) says, “Everyone has  the right to freedom of thought and expression . . . [including the] freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing, in print, in the form of art, or through any other medium of one’s choice.” Article 13(3) goes on to say, “The right of expression may not be restricted by indirect methods or means, such as the abuse of government or private controls over newsprint, radio broadcasting frequencies, or equipment used in the dissemination of information, or by any other means tending to impede the communication and circulation of ideas and opinions.”

Elaborating on this right is the Inter-American Declaration of Principles of Freedom of Expression of 2000.

2. Ecuador’s Hostility to Freedom of Expression.

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa
Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa

Ecuador under the presidency of Rafael Correa since January 2007 has through policies and actions retaliated against journalists and media that have criticized him and his government. Correa has insulted and filed lawsuits against reporters and news outlets and promoted a series of legal measures to roll back press freedoms. His government has expropriated television channels, radio stations, newspapers and magazines.

Journalists in the country also have been subjected to physical threats and assaults with lackluster efforts by the government to investigate and prosecute those responsible.

3. The Commission and Civil Society’s Criticism of Ecuador’s Hostility to Freedom of Expression.

The Commission in 1997 created the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression “to encourage the defense of the right to freedom of thought and expression in the hemisphere, given the fundamental role this right plays in consolidating and developing the democratic system and in protecting, guaranteeing, and promoting other human rights.”

This Rapporteur has been in the forefront of criticizing Ecuador for these actions against journalists and the media. Since January 1, 2009 it has issued nine press releases expressing its concern over specific criminal prosecutions and imprisonments of journalists for libel for publication of articles about corruption of public officials and for specific physical threats and assaults on journalists.

In addition, since 2006 the annual reports of the Rapporteur have had sections specifically addressing Ecuador’s conduct in this area.

For example, the latest such report (for 2011) devotes 31 pages (78-108) for a detailed, footnoted review of Ecuador’s assaults and attacks on media and journalists; legal proceedings and arrests (the “Rapporteur is concerned about the consistent tendency of high-ranking public officials to rebuke, arrest, and prosecute citizens who criticize them at public events”); presidential broadcasts and government interruptions of news programs; disparaging statements by senior state authorities against media outlets and reporters critical of the government; constitutional amendment and legislative proposals to regulate the content of all media, establish the grounds for liability and the applicable sanctions and serve as an authority on enforcement; and cloture and regulation of communications media.

Such actions also have subjected the country to similar criticism by the U.N. Human Rights Council in its Universal Periodic Review of Ecuador in the summer of 2012. One of the Council’s closing recommendations in that Review was for Ecuador to reform its legislation regarding freedom of expression with a view to bringing it in conformity with international standards and those of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. In response Ecuador said that it could not agree to reform its legal framework in accordance with standards from the Commission, when it is the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, not the Commission, which has judicial competency over this matter. Nor could Ecuador, it said, eliminate laws that criminalize opinion since it had no such laws.

In addition, Ecuador has been severely chastised by the Committee to Protect Journalists, which put the country on its Risk List of the 10 countries in the world where press freedom suffered the most in 2012. Similar rebukes have come from Human Rights Watch, Freedom House and the Washington Post Editorial Board.

4. Ecuador’s Campaign for Its Proposed “Reforms” of the Commission.

In response to the Special Rapporteur’s persistent and documented criticism of Ecuador, the country developed a set of proposals to “reform” the Commission. Prominent in this package were reduction in funding (and hence the work) of the Special Rapporteur and elimination of his separate annual report.

Ricardo Patino
Ricardo Patino

In early 2013 Ecuador conducted a lobbying campaign in support of these proposals. Its Foreign Minister, Ricardo Patino, went on a tour of Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Haiti and Venezuela to promote them.  He also advocated them at a meeting of the Political Council of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas (ALBA) [1] and at a March 11th meeting in Guayaquil, Ecuador of the 24 states that were parties to the American Convention on Human Rights.[2]

The latter event was opened by a long speech by Ecuadorian President Correa, who emphasized that the Commission should have its headquarters in a state that has ratified said Convention (not Washington, D.C.); that the Commission should have its own budget provided only by state parties to the Convention (without voluntary contributions by outsiders like the U.S., Canadian and European governments and NGO’s);  that the Commission should not be “autonomous” and instead be controlled by said states parties; the abolition of the Commission’s rules authorizing its issuance of precautionary measures; having the Commission focus on general promotion of human rights, not investigating and deciding on alleged violations of human rights; and elimination of the separate annual report of the Special Rapporteur for Free Expression and instead including such a report in a comprehensive report for all of the rapporteurships.

The Ecuador meeting resulted in the Declaration of Guayaquil whereby the 24 states parties agreed that at the March 22nd meeting of the OAS General Assembly they would support the following: a group of their foreign ministers would press the U.S., Canada and other non-parties to the Convention to ratify or accede to same; the Commission would be refocused on promotion of human rights through national systems; financing of the Commission would be increased by states parties and by “neutral” others; all rapporteurships would be treated equally; an analysis of the costs of the OAS Human Rights System would be obtained; the Commission’s headquarters would be moved to a state party; and annual conferences about reforming the System would be held.

Opposition to such proposals came forward from the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, who urged the OAS members “to strengthen its exemplary human rights system, by promoting universal access for citizens . . ., respecting the Commission’s autonomy to progressively improve its policy and practices in response to the needs of victims and concerns of member states, and providing the necessary resources [to the System].” Similar concerns were voiced by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Freedom House, a group of 98 prominent Latin Americans and a coalition of 700 hemispheric human rights organizations.

Another opponent of Ecuador’s campaign was Cesar Gaviria Trujillo, a former president of Colombia and past secretary general of the OAS. He said that the so called “reforms” of the Commission put forward by Ecuador would “severely weaken the [C]omission and make it easier for governments to ignore basic rights and limit free speech.” They would “drastically curtail [the Commission’s] autonomy” and put a “financial stranglehold” on its operations, including a “devastating impact” on the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression. [3]

The March 22nd OAS General Assembly Meeting

Jose Miguel Insulza, OAS Secretary General
Jose Miguel Insulza, OAS Secretary General

In opening remarks that day, the OAS Secretary General, Jose Miguel Insulza from Chile, stressed that the autonomy of the System needed to be maintained. He also said that strengthening some of the Commission’s rapporteurships “cannot mean that others are weakened” and that the Special Rapporteurship on Freedom of Expression should be strengthened “with a program of ample defense of [such] freedom . . . . ” This would include “issues relating to the curtailment of that freedom by public authorities . . .  as well as the threats and crimes to which journalists and the social media are increasingly subjected in our region and the obligation of states to protect them.”

William J. Burns, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State
William J. Burns, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State

Similar remarks were made by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, William J. Burns. He noted that even though the U.S. was not a party to the American Convention on Human Rights, the U.S. still collaborates with the Commission when it challenges the U.S. on such issues as the death penalty, the human rights of migrants and children and the status of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He added, “We must be vigilant against efforts to weaken the Commission under the guise of reform. [Such efforts] . . . seek to undermine the Commission’s ability to hold governments accountable when they erode democratic checks and balances and concentrate power through illiberal manipulation of democratic processes.”

Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Patino in his remarks accused the opposition and the media of distorting his government’s proposals. He also accused the Commission of improperly assuming the power to issue precautionary measures. Its decisions were independent, he said, but the Commission was not autonomous. He rhetorically asked, the Commission is autonomous and independent of whom? Sotto voce, a Spanish journalist answered, “You,” causing laughter by those around the journalist.

The resolution adopted by acclamation at the midnight conclusion of the March 22nd meeting already has been discussed. It clearly did not adopt all of the items in Ecuador’s package.

This resolution emerged after a long day in which the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama and Chile lead the opposition to the proposals from Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua. A Human Rights Watch observer said, “It was a resounding victory for the Commission, and a major defeat for the Venezuela-Ecuador bloc. It became evident that [the latter] . . . were totally isolated, without the support they were expecting from other countries.”

Towards the end of the meeting Ecuador and Bolivia threatened to withdraw from the Commission and leave the meeting. To avoid such a rupture, Argentina offered a face-saving amendment to the resolution about the OAS’ Permanent Council continuing the dialogue on the “core aspects for strengthening” the System, which Ecuador and the other ALBA countries ultimately accepted.

Conclusion

Afterwards Ecuador’s Foreign Minister tried to whitewash his country’s defeat by saying that the resolution accepted its proposal to continue the debate in the future. Before the next meeting of the OAS General Assembly in June 2014, the Foreign Minister said that there would be another meeting of the states parties to the American Convention like the one on March 11th in Guayaquil to discuss these issues. He also hinted at Ecuador’s possible withdrawal from the OAS Commission by saying there was an agreement being negotiated to create a Human Rights Commission of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR).

Unless there are unexpected changes in regimes or policies in this Hemisphere over the next 14 months, I do not expect Ecuador and its allies will be successful at the June 2014 OAS meeting in gaining acceptance of its proposals to weaken the Inter-American Commission.[4] We will then see if this small group will leave that Commission and form its own, more limited, human rights system.


[1] ALBA is an alternative to the U.S.-sponsored Free Trade Area of the Americas. differing from the latter in that it advocates a socially-oriented trade block rather than one strictly based on the logic of deregulated profit maximization. The only members of ALBA are Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and three small Caribbean states (Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.

[2]  This campaign is discussed in press releases from Ecuador’s Foreign Minister.

[3] Such a limitation on financing undoubtedly would result in a reduction of such funding and thus on the work of the Commission.

[4]  I assume that Ecuador has another burden to overcome in attempting to win support for its “reform” proposals. Its credibility within the OAS, I suspect, has been adversely affected by its recent exaggerated, alarmist call for an OAS Consultative Meeting of Foreign Ministers over the alleged United Kingdom threat to invade Ecuador’s London Embassy because of its providing diplomatic asylum in that Embassy to Julian Assange.

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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