Monday, December 10, 2012

The Future of Human Rights in the Americas: Update on the Inter-American Reform Process

Today, on Human Rights Day, as we mark the 64th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the inter-American human rights system – guardian of the world’s first international human rights agreement – faces an unprecedented threat to its independence and authority.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights – which oversees implementation of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, adopted in April, 1948, eight months prior to the Universal Declaration – is undergoing a state-initiated “reform” process that may lead to controversial changes in the Commission's practices and procedures, without the consent of the Commission.
As IntLawGrrl Alexandra Harrington posted in February, since it came into existence in 1960, the Inter-American Commission has promoted and protected human rights in the 35 member states of the Organization of American States. It does so through reporting, country visits, precautionary measures, and the individual complaints mechanism. The Commission's exercise of its functions has motivated criticism and objections in recent years from some states that disagreed with specific decisions – as have Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, and Peru – or accused it of bias – as has Venezuela.
In June of 2011, the OAS Permanent Council created a Special Working Group with a mandate to study the Commission’s work and propose any reforms deemed necessary. The Special Working Group’s proposals, which the OAS Permanent Council approved this past January, focused on both the Commission’s institutional practices and its substantive mandate.
Among the most controversial proposed reforms were those that would:
► Restrict the Commission’s discretion in deciding requests for precautionary measures,
► Significantly alter Chapter IV of the Commission’s Annual Report, in which it highlights countries with particularly troublesome human rights practices,
► Reduce the autonomy of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, and
► Impose additional restrictions on the processing of individual complaints in ways that could favor states at the expense of victims.
Civil society has criticized the proposed reforms, and the reform process itself, as lacking in transparency and input from advocates and victims.
A joint statement coordinated by CEJIL, the Center for Justice and International Law, and signed by over 90 organizations, called on the OAS and its individual member states to ensure that the process is truly aimed at strengthening the inter-American system and includes the input of advocates and victims. Representatives of nongovernmental organizations, academia, and the judiciary have also signed on to the “Bogota Declaration,” which echoes this call.
A politically motivated, state-imposed reform of the Commission’s authority and procedures is a unique and pressing cause for concern to all those invested in the protection of human rights in the Americas.
In the words of the Commission's chair, José de Jesús Orozco:

José de Jesús Orozco
'What is at stake, let no one doubt, is the legacy that the States, civil society, and the inter-American bodies themselves have built so that current and future generations throughout the hemisphere can enjoy their human rights. This is about regional guarantees and effective mechanisms to ensure that nobody in the Americas feels defenseless when it comes to his or her most basic rights and that the States – through their current and future governments – see themselves as bound to respect those values that at some point, in the exercise of their sovereignty, they embraced and made an international commitment to safeguard.'
The Commission has submitted a position paper and detailed reply to the Permanent Council regarding the proposals; in these, the Commission demonstrates a willingness to work towards a stronger inter-American system, while rejecting many of the more threatening recommendations. It has also undertaken its own, inclusive efforts to consult with users of the inter-American system and devise reforms that would strengthen the Commission’s effectiveness in carrying out its mandate.
As the Commission has noted, though some of the Special Working Group’s proposals could improve the transparency and accessibility of the Inter-American System, the Commission has largely identified these areas as priorities in its 2011-2015 Strategic Plan. The Inter-American Commission anticipates concluding its strengthening process, with potential modifications to its Rules of Procedure and to its institutional policies and practices, no later than next month.
Meanwhile, the reform process led by the OAS Permanent Council is set to culminate this coming March. The Permanent Council is developing proposals for the implementation of the recommended reforms and has adopted a four-phase Work Plan, scheduled to wrap up in February. And this past Friday, the Permanent Council held its first public hearing with civil society on this issue since the reform process was initiated nearly 18 months ago. Next, the Permanent Council will draft a report with proposals on implementation, which will be considered by the OAS General Assembly, which plans to consider the Permanent Council’s recommendations for possible adoption.
The next three months will be of critical importance to the protection of human rights in the Americas, and thus to the legitimacy of supranational human rights mechanisms for ensuring accountability and justice for violations of international human rights law.
Useful tools for those interested in learning or sharing information about advocacy before the Inter-American System include: the manual and video produced by the International Justice Resource Center, for which I serve as founding Executive Director; information produced by CEJIL; and Reforma SIDH, a Spanish-language website created by a coalition of civil society organizations.

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