New authoritarian states in Latin America seek to weaken regional human rights commission and court; Venezuela gives notice of withdrawal from Inter-American Court of Human Rights

In Latin America, a concerted effort has been underway to weaken the effectiveness of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights established under the terms of the American Convention on Human Rights, which most of the countries of the hemisphere have ratified–except for the United States.

In June, the 42nd General Assembly of the Organization of American States, which both the Commission and the Court depend on for their budgets and administrative support, was held in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The host nation was joined by Venezuela, Ecuador and Nicaragua in pushing for reforms that would weaken the timeliness and effectiveness of actions by the Commission and the Court, e.g., by imposing delays on publication of their reports and findings. These efforts and proposed reforms were not approved in Cochabamba, but rather referred back to the Permanent Assembly of the OAS for further study and action.

Still, it is important to recognize clearly the assault on these institutions which is being led by newly authoritarian states in Latin America. They are opposed to these human rights institutions because they themselves appear to violate, and to intend to violate, the fundamental human rights of their citizens.

The case of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela is perhaps the best known. But Evo Morales in Bolivia, the host country, has also led an assault on the independence of the judiciary which, though cloaked in legal formality, is essentially authoritarian in nature. Rafael Correa in Ecuador recently attempted to shut down one of the two leading newspapers in the country, El Universo in Guayaquil, and in the end was only persuaded not to by the threat of action before the Inter-American Commission and the Court. Daniel Ortega, in Nicaragua, who will be remembered as the leader of the Sandinista government of that country in the 1980’s, has reportedly also undertaken actions violating fundamental human rights.

On July 25, Chávez announced that Venezuela would withdraw from the compulsory jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The withdrawal, unless rescinded, will take effect in one year.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was too busy with her other travels to attend the General Assembly meeting in Cochabamba.

These developments bear close monitoring. For while Washington has been busy fighting insurgents in Afghanistan and terrorists in the Middle East, it has not been giving a high priority to developments in countries in the hemisphere which are culturally and historically much more closely linked to the United States.

For further details, see the following:

Catie Duckworth, “The Dangers of the Hemisphere Operating without the IACHR’s Guidance,” July 25, 2012.

Caracas withdraws from regional rights court; Venezuelan leader counters IACHR ruling with criticism. El País (English), July 26, 2012.

“IACHR Takes Case Involving Venezuela to the Inter-American Court, IACHR Press Release,” July 13, 2012. Details in the Press Release included the following:

Washington, D.C. – The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) filed an application with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Case No. 12.606, Brothers Landaeta Mejías, Venezuela.
The facts of this case refer to the extrajudicial execution of brothers Igmar Alexander Landaeta Mejías and Eduardo José Landaeta Mejías, 18 and 17 years of age respectively, by officers of the Security and Public Order Corps (Cuerpo de Seguridad y Orden Público) of the state of Aragua. After threats and harassment against them, on November 17, 1996, Igmar Alexander Landaeta Mejías was extrajudicially executed. A month-and-a-half later, on December 30, 1996, his brother, the adolescent Eduardo José Landaeta Mejías, was illegally and arbitrarily deprived of his liberty, and the next day, in the context of a supposed transfer, he was extrajudicially executed.

These facts unfolded in a more general context of extrajudicial executions in Venezuela, with special incidence in the State of Aragua. The Commission has closely monitored this situation through different mechanisms. In particular, the Commission has referred to this problematic situation in its 2003 Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Venezuela; in the annual reports corresponding to 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008; and in its 2009 Report on Democracy and Human Rights in Venezuela.

The case was sent to the IA Court HR on June 10, 2012, because the Commission considered that the State had not complied with the recommendations contained in its Report on the Merits. In that report, the Inter-American Commission recommended the State to conduct a complete, impartial, effective, and timely investigation of the human rights violations described in the report, in order to establish and impose punishment for the intellectual and material responsibility for the facts described; to conduct these investigations in such a way as to establish the links between each of the events covered in this report, as well as between those events and the more general context of violence andextrajudicial executions committed by the regional police; to provide appropriate administrative, disciplinary, and criminal measures to address the actions and omissions of the State officials who contributed to justice denied and impunity surrounding the facts in this case; to make adequate reparations for the human rights violations in material and moral terms; andto provide mechanisms to prevent repetition, including training programs directed to the Aragua State Police on international human rights standards and with respect to children and adolescents, among others.

–Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Press Release, July 12, 2012.

Jim Wyss, “OAS rights body slammed at annual meeting; The Organization of American States’ human rights commission came under siege at the General Assembly, saying the body needs to reform or risk being replaced,” The Miami Herald, June 5, 2012.

Wyss reported that the attack on the IACHR came mainly from Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua. He also noted that at the meeting, “Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Nicaragua announced they are pulling out of a regional defense treaty [“The Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance or “Rio Treaty”, also known by its Spanish acronym “TIAR”), which considers an armed attack against one member as an attack against all.”

Juan Forero, “Latin America’s new authoritarians,” Washington Post, July 22, 2012.

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James Rowles
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by James Rowles (aka "The Observer"), an author and international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. Dr. Rowles is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States OAS), in Wasington, D.C., , where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, Dr. Rowles has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. Dr. Rowles speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.=LL.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, Dr. Rowles has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on some the best articles that have appeared in the blog.