Last week, in a meeting held in Washington D.C., the Executive Secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) gave his personnel some shocking news: the IACHR has a budget deficit of one million dollars. If additional funds are not found quickly, the Executive Secretary will be forced to terminate the contracts of 40% of its personnel in August 2016.
In practice, according to an evaluation carried out by the IACHR’s personnel, this means among other things, that:
- The group that processes petitions will lose operating capacity to process the more than 4000 pending petitions, and will be unable to receive new ones
- 80% of the personnel that process urgent measures regarding serious threats and those that require urgent responses (known as precautionary measures) will cease their work
- Regular human rights monitoring in a third of the region’s countries (a region of nearly a billion people) will not be able to be carried out.
The IACHR’s budget has historically been insufficient (See chapter on Counting Coins). It is a condemnation of monitored States against their watchdog. The States resent that an international body subjects them to supervision, and, therefore, to avoid assuming the political and diplomatic cost that would result from going against the Commission, they control it by providing a miserly budget that has forced the body to be on life support for more than a decade.
If it is compared with other similar international systems, the Inter-American System (including the Inter-American Court, located in Costa Rica) is the body with the fewest resources in the world (in fact, what the Inter-American System manages to do and the high impact it has is impressive, given the miserly resources at its disposal).
But the current crisis is the most dramatic.
Annually, in the report that the Commission submits to the States that make up the OAS, the IACHR carries out an assessment of its budget. The information it presents is not totally complete, but its presentation has improved in recent years. What this data shows is that in the past three years, the Commission’s budget was already decreasing.
The gray bar on the graph indicates the total annual budget of the IACHR. This total is divided into two items:
- The regular fund budget, meaning the cash flow that the OAS grants the IACHR; and
- The specific funds budget, which is composed of additional contributions from three sources: additional money sent from State members, donations from other governments (mainly European), and donations from private philanthropist organizations.
Between 2012 and 2013 there was a considerable budget increase: nearly 1.5 million USD. This increase coincided with two events: the appointment of a new Executive Secretary and the peak of the so-called “IACHR Strengthening” process. The second fact seems to have been the motive for this increase. The threat to the IACHR drew attention to a problem that temporarily mobilized resources, but, as indicated in the graphic, could not be sustained over time.
In the following year, the budget decreased by 976,900 USD. In the next year, 2015, the budget lost an additional 1,143,300 USD. Here it is important to clarify that my calculations do not include 1 million USD that appears in the annual report as a contribution from Mexico. These funds were provided exclusively for the functioning of the Ayotzinapa Group, under a special agreement, and the IACHR did not touch a cent of this.
In conclusion, the IACHR’s total budget in 2015 decreased 20% from its 2013 budget. And it was even lower than the budget deficit of 2012. The post-strengthening impulse was short-lived.
This decrease was due mainly to the reduction in collections for specific funds. Since April, the Executive Secretary had publicly mentioned this, and attributed it to the fact that the IACHR had lost USD 2,000,000 of the “European Contribution,” which instead was channeled to the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe. This version is unconvincing, as it gives the impression that in earlier years, the IACHR would have received this amount from these countries, which is not true.
But the heart of the problem goes beyond this specific moment. The main responsibility for the crisis falls on the States who created the system. The ideal financing mechanism would be the allocation of a sufficient budget through the regular OAS budget. However, currently, the IACHR receives only 6% of the general budget of the OAS.
The OAS funds are small and they cover many issues. Additionally, given the severe crisis that this international body faces, there does not seem to be a very favorable environment for increasing these funds.
A second option is for States in the region to contribute directly to the IACHR. The difficulty of implementing this model is not its cost. In reality, the budget does not require a very big financial effort from States. The problem is the lack of political will. As the procedure is not formally regulated, there is a big incentive for States to either not participate or do so in a gun slinging way: they threaten the IACHR with financial strangulation if it does not adequately “take them into account.”
A third effort would be to increase the contributions of international cooperation or specific funds. Here there have been two problems. On the one hand, governments that prefer the IACHR not fulfill its mandate have tried to prevent the Commission from obtaining them (using the argument that these funds compromise the body’s independence). On the other hand, in the Executive Secretariat of the IACHR there have historically been management problems regarding obtaining such resources, which have evidently worsened in recent years.
Both definitive solutions, as well as problems, have been sufficiently diagnosed and are well known. Now it is necessary to take drastic measures that require a firm, unified, and planned position from the IACHR. Each of the seven commissioners represents a political body, and all of them should assume their role and political responsibility in this matter. It is a collegiate body elected by States to represent the interests of victims in the region. They cannot offload their responsibilities onto the Executive Secretariat (whose head is on his way out) nor on its president.
The urgent measures that that IACHR plenary is called to adopt could include:
- The commitment of a group of States in the region to reach, at least, last year’s budget. This means providing immediate contributions that allow the IACHR to avoid another budgetary decrease this year. This should include covering a possible budget cut from the regular budget that the Commission may face as a result of the general OAS crisis. They should also be unconditional contributions.
- The beginning of a discussion of an obligatory mechanism of direct contributions to the IACHR by State parties, which has internal legal status and guarantees a concrete allocation from year to year.
- The commitment of the IACHR to modify its internal management system regarding activity planning and mobilizing resources within the Executive Secretariat. Since the IACHR is currently evaluating candidates to head the Secretariat, it should ensure that candidates have not only proven management capacities, but also a concrete and comprehensive management proposal.
Several years ago, researchers from the well known Brazilian organization indicated that, in order to fulfill the important and enormous challenge of protecting basic human rights throughout the region, the IACHR was “counting change.” Today, unfortunately, we can say that the IACHR is “begging for change.”
* Nelson Camilo Sánchez León is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice, and Society (Dejusticia).