A key election for the future of human rights in the Americas

By Belissa Guerrero Rivas

Without the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the Americas would be a more unjust region. Many of the major human rights advances made throughout our history came about because of the interventions of this protection mechanism.

From its historic visits during military regimes and armed conflicts in the region, which led to the consolidation of inter-American standards that are still used today, to the submission of emblematic cases to make progress on key issues, such as the protection of human rights defenders and the rights of women, LGBTI people and Indigenous Peoples, the IACHR has promoted a culture of respect and guarantees for human rights.

Being part of a regional mechanism that sets limits to state power regarding human rights brings major challenges. Now the IACHR faces a new challenge: choosing someone to head its Executive Secretariat.

This is the third time the IACHR has announced a public competitive process to choose who will lead it. Since the process began last September, the IACHR has ensured broad geographic representation as well as gender equity and equality in the selection process, and allowed civil society in the region to send its observations on the 10 semi-finalists. The Commission made public the list of five finalists on 3 February 2021 and, following face-to-face interviews in May, the person selected will take up their post on 1 June 2021.

Unlike previous elections for the post, this time the IACHR faces a complex internal and external environment. In recent years, a discourse contrary to human rights has taken root in the region, in some countries even by the those holding the highest office. In addition, in response to the pandemic, many states have resorted to the disproportionate use of force and adopted repressive measures on the pretext of preventing and combatting COVID-19.

Although the so-called Process for Strengthening left its mark on the IACHR, in recent years we have once again seen how various states in the region have tried to limit the Commission's actions, disregarding its independence and autonomy.

The financial situation is not very encouraging either, despite the fact that Organization of American States (OAS) Member States agreed to double their funding of the IACHR and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights over a period of three years, after promulgating “the Cancun agreements” during the 2017 General Assembly. Unfortunately, at the OAS General Assembly last year Member States decided that the budget for these bodies would be allocated taking into consideration the OAS' available resources. This means that the promise of doubling the budget from 2021 will not necessarily be fulfilled, which puts the work carried out by these bodies at risk.

The IACHR's financial crises are a long standing concern, but in 2016 it suffered an unprecedented financial crisis, forcing it to suspend its Period of Sessions and, furthermore, to lose almost half of its staff. The IACHR was able to overcome this crisis thanks to international cooperation, but only eight of the 34 OAS Member States made additional contributions to finance it – the rest came from European countries, international agencies and universities.

In addition, there is also a complex environment within the OAS and the IACHR itself. Last year, the OAS Secretary General, based on a report from the OAS Ombudsperson’s Office, decided to remove the then Executive Secretary of the IACHR from his post, following allegations of workplace harassment and other alleged irregularities. However, from the information publicly available, there is no evidence that a consultation process in accordance with the provisions of Article 21 of the IACHR Statute for his removal was carried out. This decision, in the absence of the relevant process having been carried out, weakens the institutional framework of the IACHR and puts its autonomy and independence at risk.

In this adverse context, the IACHR has perhaps one of its most complex elections on its hands. The person selected to head the Executive Secretariat must have a strategic vision capable of ensuring human rights are respected in a region where serious human rights violations continue to be committed and anti-rights rhetoric continues to gain support, while the pandemic is also having serious consequences.

Furthermore, given the IACHR’s financial crises, which seem to be a ghost that periodically haunts its corridors, and the reluctance of some OAS Member States to finance the system they created to guarantee human rights in the region, the person chosen also has to have great fundraising skills.

Internally, and with the inter-American human rights community, the person chosen must build trust. Given previous allegations of workplace harassment, they must take all relevant preventive measures so that this does not happen again, and if it were to occur, ensure transparency and respect for due process both for complainants and those accused. Finally, they will have the daunting task of ensuring that those holding the highest offices in the OAS and its Member States respect and guarantee the IACHR's independence and autonomy as fundamental pillars to enable it to carry out its mandate.

We hope that the IACHR will choose the right person to face these complex challenges.

Belissa Guerrero Rivas is Advocacy Coordinator for the Americas at Amnesty International