By Joan Dark
The relationship between the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the OAS member states has, from its inception, been an uneasy one. Founded by the OAS in 1959, the IACHR is a critical component of the human rights system in the Americas. Together with the Inter-American Court, established in 1979, it forms the core of the international human rights system for the OAS countries.
The IACHR is mandated to investigate and provide remedy for human rights violations committed by the very states which comprise its funding base. So when the IACHR looks into petitions for redress filed by individuals or groups, of necessity it is investigating alleged bad acts by those who financially support it.
It appears that this long standing and strained alliance may be crumbling. Earlier this year,the IACHR plummeted into a funding crisis which threatened its continued viability.
An IACHR press release dated May 23, 2016 stated that
The Commission deeply regrets having to report that on July 31, 2016, the contracts of 40 percent of its personnel will expire, and at this time the Commission does not have the funds—or the expectation of receiving the funds—to be able to renew them. The Commission is also very sorry to report that it has been forced to suspend the visits it had planned for this year, as well as its 159th and 160th sessions, which had been scheduled for July and October.
On September 30, the IACHR announced that, due to the international response to the funding crisis, the immediate funding crisis was overcome. “We announce with great satisfaction today that the severe financial crisis we went through in 2016 has been overcome,” said the IACHR President, Commissioner James Cavallaro. “This was possible thanks to the special financial efforts done by Member States and other donors to help solve the urgent problem.”
The funding for the Commission is based on OAS budget appropriations and voluntary contributions from member and observer states, as well as regular contributions from other countries, many of which had curtailed or completely stopped their contributions to this human rights body. According to a source connected with the Inter-American court, the European contributions have been reportedly cut back due to the crisis engendered in those countries as a result of the influx of Syrian refugees.
And on all these fronts — budget allocations and voluntary contributions from the Americas and abroad — funding for the human rights system in the Americas is under attack. Even though the immediate crisis has been addressed, there are foundational issues which may well continue to hamper human rights in the Americas.
The OAS budgets $5 million (US) dollars per year for the IACHR. Another $4 million from voluntary contributions make up the rest of the $9 million yearly budget for the Commission. In comparison with the funding for the two other international human rights systems — in Europe and in Africa — the funding for the IACHR renders it the most impoverished. The budget of the International Criminal Court at The Hague is $27 million, while the African System is budgeted at $13 million. The Council of Europe allocates 100 million Euros each year for the protection and defense of human rights in that region.
It should be noted that Latin American and Caribbean countries also provide voluntary contributions to The Hague. According to the IACHR, that funding constitutes $13,705,508 a year. The same Latin American and Caribbean countries contribute a mere $199,600 to the IACHR. The Hague rarely takes on cases involving Latin America, however. There is only one case concerning Latin America pending at The Hague, while over 6100 cases concerning Latin American countries are lodged with the IACHR. The Council of Europe allocates 41.5% of its budget for protection of human rights while the OAS apportions 6% of its yearly budget towards the IACHR.
In other words, Latin American countries are fierce defenders of human rights bodies — but just not in their own backyard.
While the regular OAS funding for the IACHR has been problematic for some time, the recent financial crisis appears to have been launched due to the curtailing of the voluntary contributions, both from member states and others. The IACHR had received one million less this year in voluntary contributions than was received the previous year.
Canada, for example, had sharply curtailed its voluntary contributions to the IACHR. Its contributions have been decreasing since 2013, when they peaked at $612,400 US. The following year Canada’s contribution plummeted to $304,200 and then further dropped in 2015, to only $75,900. Mexico, which contributed $500,000 in 2014, subsequently stopped its voluntary contributions completely.
The reasons for the cessation of contributions from Mexico may be linked to IACHR investigations of that country. The IACHR has launched an investigation of the missing 43 students from the Rural Teachers College in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, who went missing in September 2014 and the Commission has appointed an independent (non IACHR) team of experts to conduct the investigation, which Mexico will be paying for, to the tune of $1.25 million. These funds are separate from the voluntary contributions, which Mexico has not volunteered since 2014.
The Commission has recently voiced sharp criticism of Mexico’s human rights, stating that Mexico suffers from a “serious crisis of violence and impunity.” A March 2016 report from the Commission also highlighted repeated failures by Mexican authorities to get to the bottom of 27,000 disappearances registered in Mexico as of 2015.
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According to the international human rights network, IFEX,
…member states Argentina, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and the United States of America all reduced their contributions to the IACHR between 2013-15, says IFEX-ALC, while Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay have contributed only irregularly.
The Commission has actively pursued claims against a number of the countries which had subsequently withdrawn or cut back their contributions. Since 2006, the IACHR has granted 61 precautionary measures involving Mexico and has sent on six cases to the Inter-American Court. Since 2006, Colombia has seen 71 precautionary measures granted by the IACHR and 12 cases sent to the court. In the same time frame, the United States has had 41 precautionary measures granted and, due to the US’s refusal to submit to the court’s jurisdiction, has had zero cases adjudicated through the court. Canada, which has not ratified any of the OAS human rights treaties, also does not submit to the court’s jurisdiction and has had no precautionary measures granted and no cases pending at the court. Canada’s support for the IACHR was halted under the conservative Harper government and has yet to be reinitiated.
According to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, Argentina’s current level of support for the IACHR has dwindled to a mere 10% of its prior level of contributions.
The Inter-American Court, which also relies on funding from the OAS budget as well as on voluntary contributions, has reported a shortfall in voluntary contributions. An official connected with the court, speaking under conditions of anonymity, told this reporter that the court’s financial crisis will likely affect the ability of the court to maintain its normal sessions of 10-11 weeks each year. The official stated that the financial crisis would probably reduce the sessions to around seven working weeks.
As with the Commission, the OAS funding for the court renders the Inter-American court the most impoverished international court in the world, asserted the official. He explained that the OAS allocates 2.7 million for the court, which comprises about half of its budget. The rest comes from international cooperation, which has now dropped off severely.
“Historically, there is no culture of human rights in Latin America,” he stated. “This is a political crisis that has economic aspects. There is simply a lack of will to increase the budget.”
According to the IACHR, an unaddressed financial setback would result in the following
…thousands of victims of human rights violations will be left unprotected. The total dismantling of some work teams and the cutbacks mean that it is inevitable that the procedural backlog the Commission had been trying to reduce will increase again and will reach a point where it is incompatible with the right of access to justice.
The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, which published a statement of support for the IACHR, summed up the political impetus behind the financial crisis, asserting that:
The crisis affecting the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is not solely financial but it is in response to a political strategy of the OAS Member States to bring the human rights protection system in the region to an end.
Various proposals for addressing the financial crisis are being discussed. At the time of going to press, the IACHR has announced the selection of a new Executive Secretary, Dr. Paolo Abrao, a lawyer and professor from Brazil. According to unverified rumor from a human rights source, the prior Executive Secretary, Mexican Emilio Álvarez Icaza Longoria, may be planning a run for the Presidency of Mexico.
Joan Dark is a New-York based independent researcher.