By Doug Cassel
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is one of several international human rights bodies actively undermined by the current U.S. Administration. Disrespect for the Commission is a gross miscalculation. It disserves both our values and our interests.
The Commission is the human rights watchdog of the Organization of American States. Its seven members are elected by the 34 participating governments of the OAS to serve in their personal capacities as experts. The Commission processes complaints; publishes hard-hitting reports; requests governments to adopt precautionary measures; refers and litigates cases against the 22 mostly Latin American States which accept the contentious jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights; facilitates friendly settlements; and issues press releases denouncing human rights reversals and lauding advances.
In recent months, for example, the Commission’s advocacy may have played a role in the release of one hundred protesters from prison in Nicaragua and was instrumental in securing a UN Human Rights Council resolution condemning serious human rights violations in that country.
With its wide-ranging powers collectively conferred by governments, the Commission is the most authoritative and credible human rights body in the Western Hemisphere. Past U.S. Administrations have nearly always supported it. They understood that encouraging respect for human rights in the Americas not only promotes our values, but also stimulates economic development, while helping to avoid wars, civil strife, and refugee flows.
Hence the United States funds most of the Commission’s regular budget. We nominate U.S. citizens for election by OAS member States to serve on the Commission. We urge other governments to participate in Commission proceedings.
But enter the current Administration. Its first step was to instruct our diplomats not to attend Commission hearings on two sensitive cases against the US. Our boycott put us in the company of only two other countries: Cuba and Nicaragua.
In June 2017 the candidate nominated by the State Department for election to the Commission (this writer) was defeated. Senior Department officials lifted nary a finger to win the election.
That same month, Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee published an op-ed calling on the Trump Administration to reassess U.S. funding of the OAS, because of the Commission’s positions on abortion and gay marriage.
Later that year, the first budget under the Trump Administration was adopted. The United States paid its assessed quota of about $50 million toward the total OAS budget of about $83 million. However, because the regular OAS budget for the Commission is woefully inadequate (only about $5 million to $7 million annually), the Commission depends on additional voluntary contributions. In 2015, the US had voluntarily contributed an additional $2 million to the Commission; in 2016, $3.2 million; and in 2017, $2.7 million. In 2018, under the new Administration, the United States contributed zero.
In December 2018, Cruz, Lee and seven other anti-abortion Senators asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to cut off all US funding of the Commission, because of its support for women’s reproductive rights.
Whatever one’s position on that contentious issue, the Senators’ proposed remedy – a total cut-off of US funds – was grossly disproportionate. For example, of 259 press releases issued by the Commission in 2018, only one focused on abortion. In contrast, 41 focused on repression in Nicaragua, 12 on Venezuela, 12 on Guatemala, six on Honduras, and 43 on acts of murder or violence in other countries.
In March 2019 Secretary Pompeo responded to the Senators by firing what may be a warning shot at the Commission. The State Department announced a cut of $210,000 in funding for the OAS, equivalent to about 5% of US funding for the Commission.
Shortly before this announcement, in February, the United States again boycotted a Commission session. And in March the United States let pass the deadline without nominating a candidate to serve on the Commission.
At a time when human rights crises overwhelm several countries in the Americas, the Commission’s work is of critical importance. We must hope that future Administrations will once again appreciate the Commission’s vital role in our troubled hemisphere.