CPJ urges OAS not to weaken human rights system

March 18, 2013

Dear OAS Ministers of Foreign Affairs:

Ahead of the assembly of the Organization of American States on March 22, the Committee to Protect Journalists urges you to oppose any attempts to debilitate the regional human rights system. The failure of member states to preserve the autonomy and independence of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and its special rapporteur on freedom of expression would make citizens throughout the hemisphere more vulnerable to human rights violations and represent a blow to democracy in the Americas.

The OAS assembly will convene in Washington, D.C., to decide on a series of proposals to revise the regional human rights commission. Introduced by Ecuador with the stated goal of strengthening the system, the changes would in fact bar the rapporteur’s office from seeking autonomous financial support, reduce its independence by allowing member states to assert greater control, and prevent it from publishing reports on freedom of expression. The series of 53 recommendations won initial approval during the 2012 General Assembly in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

CPJ research shows the proposed changes are part of an effort launched by a group of states at odds with the commission’s role to promote and protect human rights. The charge has been led by Ecuador and supported by the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, or ALBA, which also includes Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Cuba, Dominica, Antigua and Barbuda, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Several ALBA countries have dismal press freedom records. In Ecuador, for example, the government has enacted laws to restrict free expression, smeared critics, and filed defamation suits against detractors. Its actions follow similar ones taken by Venezuela, while the Bolivian and Nicaraguan governments have promoted anti-media policies.

Countries that have been pillars of the system and should be leading its defense, including Brazil and Argentina, have instead remained silent.

In late 2012, the commission pledged to study the recommendations, consult with all actors, and make its own adjustments to the regulations. This process, as stated by the commission, will be conducted during the first half of 2013. Allowing the IACHR to examine proposals and adjust its own rules is a long-standing practice designed to insulate the body from the political influence of its member states.

During a March 11 meeting in Guayaquil between most of the signatories of the American Convention on Human Rights, the Ecuadoran government made another attempt to lobby member states to circumvent the established protocol and ultimately weaken the human rights the system. The group, led by President Rafael Correa and Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño, drafted a declaration, signed by 18 nations, in which it was agreed that the OAS would fully fund the hemispheric human rights system–which in practice could seriously restrict the functioning of the special rapporteur for freedom of expression, whose funding is largely provided by outside sources. Other aspects of the declaration could open up the statutory framework of the IACHR to a broad review and potentially weaken its structure. While the declaration does not legally bind the OAS, Nicaragua has already drafted a resolution to ensure it is part of the discussion on March 22.

For more than 50 years, the human rights system has served as the last line of defense for citizens facing abusive treatment throughout the hemisphere. It has intervened directly in cases of imminent danger–ordering governments to provide security for threatened journalists, for instance–and issued in-depth reports on systemic human rights abuses. Widely seen as an international model, the commission and its rapporteur have upheld such fundamental democratic principles as due process, separation of powers, and freedom of expression. The body has played a key role in documenting abuses committed by dictatorial regimes in the 1970s and 1980s. With democratization in the region, the system began to address the legacy of the dictatorships and their impact on democratic institutions.

At the same time, the special rapporteur on freedom of expression, created in 1997, has consistently denounced official censorship, campaigned against criminal defamation laws, and promoted access to information. Thanks to its efforts, laws criminalizing desacato, or disrespect, have been repealed in Paraguay, Costa Rica, Peru, Chile, Honduras, Panama, Nicaragua, Uruguay, and Bolivia. Mexico has decriminalized defamation laws at the federal level, while Argentina eliminated libel and slander on matters of public interest.

We believe that approval of these proposals by the OAS assembly would seriously damage the independence of the commission, neutralize the work of a leader in the promotion of fundamental human rights, and strip a vital layer of protection for citizens throughout the region.

The reputation of any country with a stated commitment to human rights and freedom of expression would be seriously damaged if these changes are approved. We urge you to reject the proposals.

Sincerely yours,

Joel Simon
Executive Director