A Response to “A Financial Crisis or Something More?”
In a post of 13 June to this blog, the authors addressed the financial crisis of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, characterized it as a result of state dissatisfaction, and portrayed it as an opportunity to reimagine the role of member states and the organs of the Inter-American Human Rights System (the Commission and the Court). I agree with the authors that the financial crisis goes beyond the issue of money and is rather a reflection of the stance that member states have towards the regional human rights protection system but I strongly disagree with their appraisal of the reasons for the crisis and do not consider it an opportunity for positive change. It is rather an ominous threat.
Let’s get the facts straight. The shortfall in the budget that generated this crisis is the reduction of donations from European states and not a sudden loss of trust by OAS member states. In short, states have not pulled funding from the Commission. Rather, since the inception of this organ, member states have kept it (and later the Court) on a short financial leash. The Commission’s budget is meager in size (8,5 million USD yearly, or less than a penny per inhabitant of the Americas), and only 46% is made up of regular state contributions. The remaining 56% is made up of special contributions or donations – some of them made by member states, others by third countries or even organizations. In financial terms, the commitment to the Inter-American System has always been precarious – which does not speak too highly of the democratic and liberal quality of its member states.
The authors then make a link between the current crisis and the 2011-2013 “strengthening process” and suggest that it is a sign that the outcome of this two-year reflection process, in which states were the main protagonists, was somehow inadequate to appease states and motivate them to dig deeper into their pockets. The relation these two situations bear to each other is tenuous. First, the few member states that have come forward with donations have not made them conditional on further reforms. Second, the political climate this time around is quite different. Then, we had frontal confrontation with the system, today, a “silent checkmate”. In 2011-2013, hemispheric relations were in flux and the strengthening process was part of a broader strategy to drastically reduce the role of the United States in the Americas. Crippling the OAS – and the Commission – was instrumental to these aims.
The existence of the OAS was called into question and new parallel institutions excluding the US were created (CELAC, ALBA, UNASUR), partly in order to render it superfluous. Evo Morales opened the General Assembly Session of 2012 in Cochabamba by stating that the OAS had two options: “dying as a servant of the empire or reviving to serve all of the nations of the Americas”. The Ecuadorean Foreign Minister called for OAS functions to be absorbed by CELAC and for a human rights mechanism to be created under UNASUR.
The position of the regional hegemon in the Commission and the Inter-American system was an important component of the “strengthening process”. Hugo Chávez disparaged the Commission by calling it “a mafia infiltrated by the US Department of State” that “serves the interests of hegemonic US policy in the region”. Part of Venezuela’s reasons for denouncing the American Convention and withdrawing from the Inter-American Court were the unequal human rights obligations of the states in the region.
Such stakes are largely absent in the current financial crisis.
Tinkering, yes. Reimagining, no!
The authors highlighted the advances that the region has made regarding democracy and human rights as powerful reasons to rethink the practices and arrangements that were borne out of dictatorships and transitions. This is a valid proposition and endeavor but I disagree with the terms on which such reflections are premised. The authors talk generally of situations where national contexts were not sufficiently taken into account or state participation was limited. Such situations are evidently worthy of analysis. I agree that the Inter-American legal framework can be tinkered with in order to give expression to the principle of democracy. However, the formulation of far-reaching proposals should keep in mind what the overwhelming majority of the Commission’s operations look like, the general context in which it operates and the function that a human rights protection mechanism is supposed to play. Deficiencies should not be glossed over but they should be placed in their proper context.
Although the state of democracy and human rights in the region is probably better than it has ever been it still has not become an entrenched fact of political life. Conceptions of democracy are relatively strong regarding accession to power (electoral democracy) but still quite weak regarding the manner in which power should be wielded. More specifically, power continues to be concentrated in the Executive and the system of checks and balances is essentially unbalanced. In short, generous human rights catalogues coexist with power arrangements that are not conducive to their realization and the horrific human rights record of many countries in the region attest to these shortcomings.
Responsible discussion on the future of the Inter-American System, should keep in mind that its organs have been instrumental in “securing the promises of national constitutions”. When domestic mechanisms fail, as they inevitably will sometimes, it is of the utmost importance to have a strong regional human rights mechanism that controls the exercise of state power and that recognizes the vulnerability of the individual vis à vis Leviathan. A far-reaching call to reimagine Inter-American System’s role and that of states in it must be aware that it threatens to destroy hard-earned institutional arrangements that have proven instrumental in guaranteeing human rights and stabilizing democratic governance in the region.
Ximena Soley is a Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law, Heidelberg.