Despite the Ecuadorian foreign ministry’s optimistic pronouncement last month that the countries of the region were close to reaching a consensus about moving the headquarters of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), their peer States seem to feel differently.
The Ecuadorian pronouncement came soon after concluding the Third Conference of States Parties to the American Convention on Human Rights, which took place on January 21st and 22nd in Montevideo Uruguay. These meetings were initiated by the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of our Americas (known by the acronym ALBA in Spanish) countries as a way of keeping alive the discussion about their vision of the future of the human rights branch of the Organization of American States (OAS).
Similar to the two prior meetings in Guayaquil, Ecuador and Cochabamba, Bolivia, not all the OAS member states were invited. Only those who ratified the Convention on Human Rights were invited. This was a political move to continue the discussions without opposition to the ALBA views by countries like the US and Canada.
The Ecuadorian’s objective for this latest meeting was to consolidate support behind one of its main priorities: to move the headquarters of the IACHR to a Latin American country. Ecuador arrived with high hopes and, with Uruguay’s assistance, they presented a technical report that they believed would pave the way for massive support from the other countries.
The report argued that: 1) there were more pros than cons to moving the headquarters, 2) it would not require a very complicated legal change (since it simply required a modification of the IACHR statutes), and 3) it would not require a very large financial investment. The report estimated the cost would be 1.4 million US dollars and proposed to divide this amount in differentiated fees by country that would range from a hundred thousand dollars to five thousand dollars.
But the languid results of the Montevideo meeting seem to indicate that the Ecuadorean goal of keeping this discussion alive will likely fail. The conference was not well attended; just 14 of the 23 countries invited came to the event. Venezuela, the great ally of Ecuador in this cause, was unable to attend because, having renounced from the Human Rights Convention, it was no longer eligible to participate.
Furthermore, the delegations that participated were low profile. Only four Foreign Ministers arrived, including Patiño, Ecuador’s Foreign Minister, and the host, Luis Almagro, Uruguay’s Foreign Minister. They were joined by the Foreign Minister of Haiti and Héctor Timerman, the Argentinian Foreign Minister, who left before the end of the conference.
According to the few reports of what happened (since these are closed-door meetings), it was very difficult to find consensus in the room. The draft declaration that had been sent to the participants for consideration was approved only after a series of changes proposed by Colombia, Brazil, and Chile. Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama and Paraguay decided not to take a position until the financial details are discussed in future OAS forums.
Ultimately, there was no decision made about changing the location of the headquarters. There was simply an agreement to study the matter further based on the initial report. No country offered to host the IACHR and that is why the final declaration urges countries to “express their interest in permanently hosting” the Commission. To make matters worse, the Paraguayan Ambassador Eladio Loizaga, criticized the proposal in an interview saying that moving forward with the discussion about the IACHR’s future goes beyond moving its headquarters, and involves a review of its proceedings and the States´ political commitment and their compliance with human rights standards.
The biggest risk of Ecuador’s failed crusade is that they may decide to carry out their threat to renounce from the American Convention. Some sources say that this country’s foreign ministry is already studying the possibility of withdrawing from the OAS Charter and leaving this political body.
This would be a great setback for the region and a real danger to the Ecuadorian people. Without international supervision, it would be almost impossible to confront the excesses of power that could present themselves in this or any other government, no matter its ideological stance.
Furthermore, it would be a setback for the Ecuadorian government. The political forums of the OAS are one of the few places—if not the only place—where Latin American countries can speak to the US as equals, if that is what is behind the problem.
Addressing this situation should be a priority for the group of countries in charge of encouraging countries to join the OAS and sign on to the Convention on Human Rights. It is important to act quickly so as not to regret it later, as occurred with Venezuela.
It is a situation that requires sophisticated diplomacy. One cannot give in to petty interests that seek to weaken a system of human rights protection because of the discomfort of one government, but it is in no one’s interest to have system that is losing its members one by one like drops from a leaky faucet.
*Nelson Camilo Sánchez is a researcher at Dejusticia (the Center for Law, Justice and Society)