At the June 4-6 meetings of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Antigua, Guatemala, ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas) countries continued to press for reforms to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). These efforts were the latest in a spate of criticisms and proposals they have issued over the past few years.

The ALBA countries (Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Venezuela and several Caribbean countries) have criticized the IACHR for its alleged favoritism towards the US government and its regional allies’ interests, its antipathy towards ALBA countries, and its disregard for anti-government violence within the ALBA countries. While the IACHR has instituted several reforms over the past year, the ALBA countries have pushed for deeper reform, including the relocation of the IACHR outside of the US as well as the elimination of external financing for the Special Rapporteurship for the Freedom of Expression.

On June 29, 2011, the OAS created a Special Working Group to strengthen the Inter-American Human Rights System (IAHRS), which includes the IACHR as well as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (I/A Court H.R.). Over the summer of 2011, the group met several times to discuss reforming the institution in line with proposals that were launched by the ALBA community and several other member-states, and sent their recommendations to the IACHR.

The seriousness of the reform process was underlined in July 2012 when the Venezuelan government initiated efforts to withdraw from the I/A Court H.R., a move that was criticized even by human rights organizations friendly with the government. President Chávez took this decision after the  I/A Court H.R. ruled in favor of Raúl Díaz Peña, a Venezuelan citizen convicted of putting bombs in front of the Colombian and Spanish embassies in Caracas in 2000, and ordered the government to pay him reparations. Since this time, the Venezuelan government has continued to reject IACHR petitions to visit the country, citing the organization’s ties with both the US government and anti-government NGOs in Venezuela.

In January of this year, the IACHR initiated several reforms seeking to increase its transparency and usefulness. Specific reforms include allowing for easier access to information concerning commission procedures and cases by disseminating handbooks and developing a more user-friendly website, and clarifying the criteria for which the IACHR may issue “precautionary measures.”

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, however, encouraged further reform, presenting an eight-point proposal. He advanced this proposal at a conference, where only OAS member states that have ratified the American Convention on Human Rights were invited and attended, in Guayaquil on March 11.

Correa’s proposed reforms included:

– Relocating the IACHR headquarters from Washington DC to Buenos Aires or elsewhere in Latin America

– Prohibiting non-member states from financing the IACHR

– Prohibiting non-Convention signatories from nominating members to the IACHR

– Ending the IACHR’s use of “precautionary measures”

– Financing each of the IACHR’s eight rapporteurships equally

– Prohibiting the external financing of the Special Rapporteurship for the Freedom of Expression

Correa cast the reforms as an effort to reorient “the IACHR to be more effective and respectful of the spirit of the [American Convention on Human Rights], of its regulations, and of the constitutional sovereignty of states.” Correa also portrayed the proposed reforms as an effort to combat US neo-colonialism. Correa has accused the US of funding and using the OAS, the IACHR, and the I/A Court H.R. to manipulate domestic affairs and tarnish the international reputation of progressive Latin American governments.

The backdrop of his criticism is the fact that the US government has neither ratified the American Convention on Human Rights nor any other IACHR protocols. Others have suggested that ALBA has pressed for reforms because “they are annoyed that any independent outside organizations criticizes their abuses of human rights and free speech.”

On March 22, the OAS General Assembly met for over twelve hours to discuss proposals to reform the IACHR.

At the meetings, Venezuela’s Ambassador to the OAS, Roy Chaderton, described the IACHR as a formerly useful entity that protected the victims of right-wing Latin American dictatorships, but, in recent years, has “protected coup leaders, terrorists, and criminals that serve the grand power centers of the international extreme right.” Chaderton’s speech before the General Assembly can be viewed here.

In closed door negotiations at the meetings, OAS member-states rejected the proposed reforms; in particular, the final resolution permitted the IACHR to receive budget support from countries outside the hemisphere, thus allowing the current funding for several of the rapporteurships to continue.

On June 6, in Antigua, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua criticized reports from the IACHR as subjective and discriminatory. Jaua argued that while the IACHR has reprimanded the Venezuelan government, for example, for not renewing RCTV’s public broadcasting license, it has refused to address the violence perpetrated by the opposition after the April elections.

Although several non-ALBA countries were sympathetic to some of the ALBA community’s proposed reforms, several spirited defenses of the IACHR have come from a multiplicity of ideological positions. Argentine Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman, whose father was a political prisoner under the Argentine dictatorship, recalled, “We victims didn’t ask who financed the commission or if there was or wasn’t universality. We were simply grateful that the voice of those persecuted on political grounds could be heard by an international commission … to denounce what was happening.”

Milton Romani, the Uruguayan Ambassador to the OAS and a former political exile during the Uruguayan dictatorship, stated that “We support the idea of reforming the IACHR … assuming the compromise of adequate financing … Simply denouncing the commission as a ‘tool of the Empire’ fails to take into account the potential of the commission to confront impunity and dictatorships.”

Jorge Castañeda, Mexico’s Secretary of Foreign of Affairs under President Vicente Fox, has defended the IAHRS stating that while the IACHR, I/A Court H.R., and the Special Rapporteurship for the Freedom of Expression are “obviously weak institutions with poor funding that sometimes make mistakes … they are the best tools for dealing with both left and right governments that have for decades violated human rights throughout Latin America.”

Within Venezuela, human rights activists have criticized the reform effort as well as the Venezuelan government’s decision to follow through with their withdrawal from the I/A Court H.R. Julio César Bermúdez, Amnesty International’s Venezuelan coordinator, for example, has stated that the decision to withdraw from the I/A Court H.R. violates Venezuelan citizens’ constitutional right to an international court.

Asdrubal Aguilar, a former I/A Court H.R. judge and currently a professor a the Catholic University in Caracas, has condemned ALBA’s proposed reforms. Aguilar has argued that the region is suffering from “elected autocracies” that violate human rights and neighboring countries that look the other way. He asserts that the international community has the responsibility to ensure that state leaders are held accountable to the rule of international law.