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.

Ecuador’s Dispute with the United Kingdom and Sweden over Julian Assange: The Inviolability of Ecuador’s Embassy in London

OAS Meeting, 8/24/12

As noted in a prior post, on August 24, 2012, the Organization of American States (OAS) held a full-day Meeting of Consultation of Foreign Ministers at its headquarters in Washington, D.C.

It was called at the request of the government of Ecuador to discuss certain issues in its dispute with the United Kingdom (and Sweden) regarding Julian Assange.[1] The central issue was the “inviolability” of Ecuador’s Embassy in London or its not being subjected to violation or invasion by U.K. officials.[2]

All of the states represented at the meeting, including observers representing the U.K. and Sweden, agreed that such inviolability has been a long-established practice and principle of international law, as expressed in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, to which 187 of the 193 U.N. members are parties. Its Article 22 states:

  • “1. The premises of the mission shall be inviolable. The agents of the receiving State may not enter them, except with the consent of the head of the mission.
  • 2.The receiving State is under a special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the mission or impairment of its dignity.
  • 3. The premises of the mission, their furnishings and other property thereon and the means of transport of the mission shall be immune from search, requisition, attachment or execution.”

Mention was also made at the meeting to the strong endorsement of this principle of international law by the International Court of Justice [3] and the U.N. Security Council.[4]

Ecuador’s Foreign Minister, Ricardo Patino

The Foreign Minister of Ecuador, Ricardo Patino, introduced the draft resolution that reiterated this principle and called for a conclusion that the U.K. had threatened to enter the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and thus violated this principle. The draft resolution also would have the meeting endorse Ecuador’s granting of asylum to Assange.

U.K. Permanent Observer to OAS, Philip Barton

Toward the end of the meeting, the U.K.’s observer, Philip Barton, responded to Ecuador’s charges. He stressed the U.K.’s “absolute commitment to the principles of the Vienna Convention” and to its “always act[ing] in full compliance with [its] provisions.” He also stated that “at no time has the UK government made any threat against the Embassy of Ecuador.”

On the other hand, Barton implied, there obviously could be situations where the host country (or receiving state) will need to enter the diplomatic premises of other countries. This is alluded to in the obligations imposed on the sending State (here, Ecuador) in Article 41 of the Vienna Convention. That Article states, in part:

  • “1.Without prejudice to their privileges and immunities, it is the duty of all persons enjoying such privileges and immunities to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State. They also have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of that State. . . .
  • 3. The premises of the mission must not be used in any manner incompatible with the functions of the mission as laid down in the present Convention or by other rules of general international law or by any special agreements in force between the sending and the receiving State.”

Barton added, “The rights of diplomatic missions conferred by the Vienna Convention comes with responsibilities. Article 41 of the Vienna Convention sets out the obligations of diplomatic missions to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State [here, the U.K.]. And these include the duty not to impede the due legal process of that State.” Ecuador, however, according to the U.K. observer, had improperly failed to respect U.K. laws and regulations and impeded the due process and legal obligations of the U.K. to extradite Assange to Sweden by the Embassy’s providing refuge to Assange, who was a “fugitive from justice” and thereby denying “the women who have made serious allegations against him the right to have their own voices heard.”

These concerns by the U.K. were echoed by the representatives of Canada, Panama and St. Lucia.

This Vienna Convention and its parallel Vienna Convention on Consular Relations were mentioned in the preamble of the U.K.’s 1987 Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act, one of whose stated purposes was to “give certain [of their]provisions . . . the force of law in the [U.K.].”

Presumably the concerns expressed in Article 41 of the Vienna Convention were behind this U.K. statute, which was referenced in its August 15th communication to Ecuador and which in section 1(3) gives the government the power to withdraw recognition from diplomatic premises and thereby permit police to enter and arrest people on the premises. That section states, in part:

  • “In no case is land to be regarded as a state’s diplomatic or consular premises for the purposes of any enactment or rule of law unless it has been so accepted or the secretary of state has given that state consent under this section in relation to it; and if —
  • (a) a state ceases to use land for the purposes of its mission or exclusively for the purposes of a consular post; or
  •  (b) the secretary of state withdraws his acceptance or consent in relation to land, ii thereupon ceases to be diplomatic or consular premises for the purposes of all enactments and rules of law.”

However, the U.K. Act of 1987 goes on to state in section 1(4), “The secretary of state shall only give or withdraw consent or withdraw acceptance if he is satisfied that to do so is permissible under international law,” while section 1(5) states that in deciding whether to withdraw consent, the minister “shall have regard to all material considerations, and in particular, but without prejudice to the generality of this subsection —

  • (a) to the safety of the public;
  • (b) to national security; and
  • (c) to town and country planning.”

These U.K. statutory considerations or limitations were highlighted at the OAS meeting by the representative of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, a former British colony and a self-proclaimed “proud” member of the British Commonwealth of Nations. He said these provisions should bar the U.K. from withdrawing its consent to the presence of the Ecuadorian embassy and thereby permitting entry of British police because there could be no threat by Assange to the U.K. public safety in light of his having been free on bail in the country for a long period of time, because there is no basis for alleging he is a threat to U.K. national security and because there was no issue of U.K. town and country planning. A similar opinion on the non-applicability of this statute to the current situation was expressed in the press by an English attorney.

These provisions of the Vienna Convention and the U.K. statute were the legal framework for the discussion at the OAS meeting as to whether the U.K. in its August 15th letter to Ecuador or otherwise had threatened the inviolability of the Ecuadorian Embassy over its providing refuge to Assange. As mentioned above, Ecuador strongly asserted that there had been such a threat while the U.K. strongly disagreed with support from the U.S., Canada and Panama. The purpose of the meeting, however, was not to make findings of fact and conclusions of law on this and other issues.

Instead, at the conclusion of the meeting, the OAS member states unanimously adopted the following resolution:

  • “1. To reiterate the full validity of the principles and standards that govern diplomatic relations among states, especially those that concern full respect for the inviolability of the premises of diplomatic missions and consular offices, as recognized in the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.
  • 2. To reaffirm that those principles and standards constitute fundamental rules for ensuring the peaceful coexistence of all the countries that comprise the international community.
  • 3. To reiterate the full validity of the principles enshrined in international law, such as respect for sovereignty, faithful compliance with international treaties, peaceful settlement of disputes, peaceful coexistence among states, and rejection of the threat or use of force to settle disputes.
  • 4. To reject any attempt that might put at risk the inviolability of the premises of diplomatic missions, to reiterate the obligation / of all states not to invoke provisions of their domestic law to justify noncompliance with their international obligations, and, in this context, to express its solidarity and support for the Government of the Republic of Ecuador.
  • 5.To urge the Governments of Ecuador and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to continue to engage in dialogue in order to settle their current differences in accordance with international law, taking into account the statements made recently by authorities of both governments.
  • 6. To entrust the Permanent Council [of the OAS]with the due follow-up of this matter.”

In so doing, the meeting refused to adopt other parts of Ecuador’s draft resolution that mentioned and quoted the August 15th U.K. communication and that stated that there had been a threat by the U.K. on the inviolability of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.[5]

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa

On August 25th (the day after the OAS meeting), Ecuador’s government announced it had received “a communication from the British Foreign Office which said that there was no threat to enter the embassy.” In addition, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa said in his weekly media address on Saturday, “We consider this unfortunate incident over, after a grave diplomatic error by the British in which they said they would enter our embassy.”

In fact, before, and at, the OAS meeting the U.K. had been reiterating that it had not and was not threatening the inviolability of the Ecuadorian Embassy. Ecuador’s sudden reversal on this issue suggests that all along it intentionally had exaggerated the U.K. August 15th communication in order to make a big splash in the international arena. Now I imagine some of the other Latin American foreign ministries will believe they were hoodwinked by Ecuador into agreeing to the extraordinary OAS meeting and will be more skeptical of any future Ecuadorian cries of alarm.


[1] I watched and listened to most of the live streaming video of this meeting, which is now archived on the OAS website. A press release and articles about the meeting are available in the OAS, the New York Times and the Guardian. The photographs of the meeting in this post are from the OAS website. Under Article 61 of the OAS Charter, such meetings of the foreign ministers are “to be held in order to consider problems of an urgent nature and of common interest to the American States,” and this was only the 27th such meeting in the 64-year history of the OAS.

[2] Also discussed at the meeting was Ecuador’s grant of asylum to Assange, a subject which will be addressed in a subsequent post.

[3] U.S.A. v. Iran, ICJ Reports 1980 3 (I.C.J. May 24, 1980), http://www.icj-cij.org/docket/files/64/6291.pdf.

[4]  U.N. Sec. Council Res. 457 (Dec. 4, 1979) (with respect to the Iranian takeover of the U.S. Embassy, the Council reaffirms “the solemn obligation of all States parties to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations . . . to respect the inviolability of diplomatic personnel and the premises of their missions”), http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/RESOLUTION/GEN/NR0/370/75/IMG/NR037075.pdf?OpenElement; UN Security Council strongly condemns attacks against British Embassy in Tehran, (Nov. 30, 2011), http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/90777/7661653.html (Council “condemned in the strongest terms the [Iranian] attacks against [U.K.’s] embassy in Tehran, . . . which resulted in intrusions into diplomatic and consular premises causing serious damage;” the Council emphasized “the fundamental principle of the inviolability of diplomatic and consular premises, and the obligations on host governments, including under the [two Vienna Conventions mentioned here], to take all appropriate steps to protect diplomatic and consular premises against any intrusion or damage”).

[5] The meeting also refused to adopt Ecuador’s draft resolution’s endorsement of Ecuador’s grant of asylum to Assange.