The year 2015 was El Salvador’s deadliest since the end of that country’s civil war in 1992. According to police records, more than six thousand people were murdered. Elsewhere, in Honduras, Brazil and Colombia, dozens of environmental activists are under attack. And in the Dominican Republic, thousands of Dominicans of Haitian ancestry are on the verge of becoming stateless following the introduction of new legislation governing naturalization and citizenship.
When national legal systems in offending countries fail to address such attacks on human rights, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights can step in and advocate for people or organizations on the receiving end of these violations. Founded in 1959, the commission is the branch of the Organization of American States (OAS) tasked with monitoring and protecting human rights; the referral body for cases brought before the Inter-American Court. The commission and the court are together referred to as the Inter-American System.
The court has been at the forefront of rights’ development. For example, in 2001, the Awas Tingni, an indigenous community in Nicaragua, won a landmark case against the government. The court’s ruling recognized the community’s right to communal property and recognized indigenous law and custom as a source of enforceable rights and obligations. The commission, in exceptional cases, orders precautionary measures of protection for victims of oppression and human rights leaders, such as Honduran activist Berta Cáceres (who was the subject of such measures before she was murdered in March).
The commission’s work is now under threat. Despite its reach and mandate, its budget is low (only $9 million in 2015). Funding comes from the OAS budget and voluntary contributions – mainly from the US and European countries. The latter have recently decided to cut funds due to the Syrian refugee crisis, allocating more to programs aimed at assisting those displaced by the ongoing war.
In May of this year, the commission stated that it would lay off 40% of its personnel by the end of July, unless OAS members or international donors could guarantee additional funding. Three days before the deadline, the commission announced it had managed to secure funds from the US, Panamá, Chile, Antigua and Bermuda, to meet salary obligations until the fall. Voluntary contributions (ranging from $1,800 to $150,000) and commitment letters from other member states and the UN were also forthcoming. On September 8, the commission announced new contributions from Mexico and Argentina.
The budget crisis is the latest symptom of the deeper fault line affecting the Inter-American System: the fact that its evolution has not been accompanied by regional political integration or any political consensus. Moreover, during the 2000s alternative regional blocs, such as Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), emerged as organizations in competition with the OAS. The case of UNASUR is telling, since it explicitly endorses the sovereignty of the state over other considerations. Regional governments discussed creating a forum on human rights within UNASUR, one that would prioritize state representation instead of a mechanism integrated by independent experts.
In the absence of regional polity, The American Convention (to which members of the OAS are signatories) is difficult to enforce and the subject of realpolitik. This might explain why compliance with the Inter-American System’s decisions is so poor, and why big players, such as Mexico, are excluded from the organization’s annual report ‘black list’ despite their alarming human rights records. As former commissioner Robert Goldman put it, “If the region’s human rights system is to be fully effective, then member states of the OAS must take seriously their role as the collective and ultimate guarantors of the system’s integrity.”
From Brazil to Ecuador, member states are less tolerant of the commission’s criticism. The case of Venezuela, a long-time supporter of the Inter-American System, is perhaps the most extreme. In 2012 it denounced the American Convention and announced its withdrawal from the jurisdiction of the court, after being subject to an extensive country report by the commission titled “Democracy and Human Rights in Venezuela.”
The increasing number of complaints and precautionary measures received annually by the commission – in particular from Mexico and the Northern Triangle – are signs of a declining and often perilous human rights environment. In the 1990s, a caseload of 600 per year was considered a record; in the early 2000s this was routine. In 2015, a record 2,164 petitions and 564 precautionary measures were received by the commission.
The commission’s financial crisis puts its work further at risk: less budget resulting in more delays in cases being processed and referred to the court, fewer country visits and fewer reports. Ultimately these challenges will deeply impact its overall legitimacy. Along with monetary commitments, a regional consensus on the role of the commission needs to be urgently reached – one that puts citizens, not sovereignty and geopolitics, at the center.