Strengthening the inter-American human rights system

By Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y)

This Friday, the Foreign Ministers of the Americas are gathering in Washington D.C. at the august headquarters of the Organization of American States (OAS). There are a good number of these meetings throughout the year, and we could be forgiven for not noticing. But this one is different and we should pay attention. The stated reason for the meeting is to “strengthen” the Inter-American Human Rights (IACHR) system”, the jewel of the OAS. In fact, this gathering is the culmination of a process in which the hemisphere’s most egregious human rights violators seek to do the exact opposite – weaken the region's human rights structures.

The OAS, like the U.N., has moments when it gets little love in the U.S. foreign policy establishment. In the last Congress, we even had several attempts to stop paying U.S. dues to the OAS, the only one of several regional organizations of which we are a member. Thankfully, these never made it very far. The OAS is, after all, a collection of governments who make collective decisions which often do not live up to the expectations of individual member states. So it often gets treated as a punching bag for all the ills and failings of our neighborhood – until we need it, of course. And boy do we need it now. Simply stated, the IACHR is under fire and in great danger of being gutted.

The IACHR has a long and storied history. It faced down the dictatorship in Argentina in the 70s and 80s. It has been virtually alone in a steady drumbeat of criticisms of the excesses of the Chavez government in Venezuela. It has never stopped issuing reports on the horrible human rights situation in Cuba. It indefatigably champions the rights and safety of individual human rights defenders in the region, the men and women that put themselves in harms way to call attention to specific problems in their countries. And yes, even the U.S. has not escaped its occasional chastising.

No country likes to be told that they are a human rights violator – especially by a club of which they are a member. In fact, it is a wonder that this human rights system has survived with this level of effectiveness for as long as it has. It represents, I believe, a testament to the level-headed, democratic regional consensus that emerged in the post-dictatorship era of the Americas.

It is no secret that the move to gut the human rights system is spearheaded by those OAS member states that least resemble mature democracies: Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia. Ecuador’s President Correa, in particular, cannot get over the fact that the IACHR --- especially its special rapporteur on Freedom of Expression ---- has publicly called him out for his systematic assault on free expression in his own country. By a combination of intimidation, expropriation of media outlets, and targeted fines using vague laws prohibiting “biased” reporting, Correa has effectively silenced his few remaining detractors in the media. Correa has announced his plans to attend the OAS meeting this Friday so we can hear from him loudly and clearly.

I have traveled significantly in the region and, as former chairman of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee and now ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, I am persuaded that the majority of our neighbors in the Americas have internalized the democratic paradox that we are strengthened by having an effective human rights defender which might periodically criticize our behavior when we stray from democratic norms. And many OAS member states and their people have directly and immeasurably benefited from the checks and balances provided by the IACHR in the past several decades. If these member states have been waiting for the best moment to say their piece and defend the jewel of the OAS, I respectfully submit that the time is now.

Engel is the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and represents the 16th Congressional District of New York, including parts of the Bronx and Westchester Country.