The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the independent human rights body of the Organization of American States (OAS), experienced a period of intense political turmoil from 2011 to 2013. Criticism of the Commission by members of the OAS—most notably Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela—was echoed by Colombia, Peru and others in their vocal disapproval of concrete IACHR decisions.
The increasingly antagonistic diplomatic environment came to a head in April 2011, when the IACHR requested that Brazil halt its construction of the $17 billion Belo Monte hydroelectric dam. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff responded by withholding its dues payment, withdrawing Ruy Casaes, the Brazilian ambassador to the OAS, and temporarily withdrawing Paulo Vannuchi, Brazil’s candidate for a position on the Commission (although he was later elected to the Commission).
Two months after Rousseff’s sharp reaction to the Belo Monte matter, the OAS Permanent Council created a Working Group charged with preparing a set of recommendations on how to strengthen the Inter-American Human Rights System (IAHRS). On December 13, 2011, the Working Group approved a report containing 53 recommendations to the IACHR. The recommendations largely referred to operations, rules of procedure and institutional practices, but some attempted to limit the capacity of the Commission and weaken its mechanisms. In short, this process was a collective catharsis for critics of IACHR decisions, combined with a chance to air broader disdain for the OAS and any institution deemed to be spoiled by U.S. influence.
After two years of the “strengthening process,” the majority of OAS member states approved the IACHR’s proposals for reform to its Rules of Procedures, policies and institutional practices, which included changing some practices regarding the individual complaint and precautionary measures mechanisms. Although these changes saved the IACHR from the worst—losing support of member states and therefore, its influence—some governments did not give up on their crusade against the OAS and the IACHR. In a broader sense, their campaign appears to be focused on stymieing all regional organs whose acronym lacks an “LA” (as in Latin America), “B” (as in Bolivarian) or “S” (as in South).
Despite the formal end to the strengthening process affirmed by the OAS General Assembly on March 23, 2013, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa and Ecuadorian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ricardo Patiño have raised a number of complaints against the IACHR and used every intergovernmental forum as an opportunity to condemn the IACHR.
In what seems to be a move to qualify the Commission as the rebel organ of the Inter-American Human Rights System, Correa recently praised the work of its peer body, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) and donated $1 million to the Court during his visit in January 2015. Surprisingly, some members of the Court sympathized with Correa’s blurry commitment to the IAHRS. The letter of invitation Correa received described his visit as an opportunity for “renewing Ecuador’s support to the Tribunal’s work and likewise for the Court to acknowledge Mr. President’s [Correa’s] commitment to the defense and promotion of human rights.” This statement underestimates the fact that any aggressive diplomatic campaign against the IACHR is akin to the weakening of the entire human rights system. Indeed, shortly after Correa’s visit to Costa Rica, he proposed creating a new Latin-American Court of Human Rights.
While Correa’s deployment of his diplomatic machinery makes Ecuador one of the most important players in the game against the IACHR, Rousseff’s passive aggressiveness should not go unnoticed. Since 2009, Brazil has not made a voluntary contribution to the IACHR, and withheld dues payments to the OAS in 2011. No other member state was as emphatic as Brazil in its recommendations regarding precautionary measures and individual complaint mechanisms during the two-year strengthening process.
The only OAS member states that have substantially increased their voluntary contributions to the IACHR are Argentina and Mexico, who contributed $400,000 and $300,000, respectively, in 2013. Brazil and the other member states behind the IACHR reforms expect the Commission to modify its policies and undertake new activities despite a decrease in the Commission’s budget. Such an expectation is tantamount to diminishing the IACHR’s capacity to fulfill its functions.
In addition to the dearth of financial backing, Brazil’s lack of political support is clear: Rousseff has had no official meetings with the IACHR since first taking office. As an emerging global power and an established leader in Latin America, Brazil is better positioned than any other country to either provide shelter or silently watch the demise of the oldest human rights organ of the continent. Unless Rousseff modifies Brazil’s apathy towards the IACHR and speaks out on behalf of the body, its known commitment to human rights will coexist with an ignoble role in the diplomatic bullying of a regional human rights body.