Challenges to the Inter-American Human Rights System

Posted by Ignacio Boulin – December 16, 2013 @ 15:03.

The last three years have been difficult for the Inter-American Human Rights System. Harsh criticism from States party to this regional system, especially targeting the DC-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, produced what was euphemistically called “Process of Strengthening of the Inter-American System for the Protection of Human Rights.” This process grew out of instability in the system and, though it has nominally been resolved, major challenges remain.

Two situations laid the foundation for this full revision of the system. First, countries such as Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Venezuela denounced what they called an excessive intervention by the Commission in their internal affairs. These States were particularly vocal about what they saw as over-reach by the IACHR  Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Speech. Indeed, the continuous scrutiny over the situation led Venezuela to withdraw from the American Convention on Human Rights. Second, the Commission lost the support of one of the most important states in the region, Brazil, when it issued precautionary measures requiring the government to suspend the construction of a hydroelectric power plant named Belo Monte, for presumed violations of the rights of indigenous people of the region.

These States articulated four basic needs that revision of the system should meet: (i) increasing clarity to the system of precautionary measures; (ii) promoting efficiency and transparency in the management mechanisms of the IACHR regarding individual cases; (iii) prioritizing friendly settlements; and (iv) revising the criteria for including States in Chapter IV of the annual report of the Commission—in which states with the worst human rights record of the region are included.

As a response, the Commission issued a document on March 2013 addressing these topics and amended its rules of procedure to conform to the results of the process.

Three challenges remain. First, at the “conclusion” of the review States kept the strengthening process open, which poses a threat the political independence of the Commission. Second, the Commission urgently needs a bigger budget. Without more resources, the Commission may be unable to manage its workload, risking discredit. Third, and probably the most difficult, is the Commission’s legitimacy deficit regarding the universality of the system, due to the fact that the most powerful country in the region, the US, has never ratified the American Convention on Human Rights.

The continued relevance of the Commission and the Inter-American System depends on the ability of States to meet these challenges.