Wednesday, March 22, 2017

A “No Show” at the IACHR: A Portentous Absence

by guest contributor Deborah M. Weissman, Reef C. Ivey II Distinguished Professor of Law, UNC School of Law

The failure of the United States government to appear at a scheduled hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on March 21, 2017 represents an unprecedented rejection of the regional mechanisms established to protect human rights.  The agenda for the meeting of the regional human rights body included a review of the recent controversial U.S. presidential executive orders related to travel and immigration, as well as the U.S. administration’s approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline.  The hearings proceeded but not without grave concerns about the future of meaningful collective commitments to the realization of human rights protections.

The IACHR has been foundational to efforts to “Bring Human Rights Home.”  Law school clinical programs and experiential courses that have sought to advance domestic human rights legal advocacy have benefited from the IACHR’s structure, location, and manageable processes.  From a pedagogical perspective, the feasibility of raising human rights claims before a well-respected human rights body close to home has provided an opportunity to teach against U.S. exceptionalism and to encourage students to reach beyond U.S. courts that have increasingly closed their doors to civil rights abuses which can and should be properly categorized as human rights violations. 

We teach our students that human rights norms must be realized in practice.  We struggle against cynicism and point to the principles of the Organization of American States (OAS) which established the IACHR as its  “principal and autonomous organ… whose mission is to promote and protect human rights in the American hemisphere.” We lecture about the constitutional texts of a regional system that claims to rest on the pillars of democracy, human rights, security, and development.  Our students are engaged in cases and projects that seek repair and reparations for victims of egregious abuse.

The IACHR is an entity designed to promotes dialogue between and among member states, aggrieved persons, community groups, and their advocates yet such opportunities were foreclosed by the failure of U.S. officials to attend the hearing.  Spokespersons for the Trump administration claimed that on-going litigation with regard to some of the Executive Orders made their appearance ill-advised.  But as human rights leaders and IACHR Commissioners observed, the IACHR panel hearing was an opportunity for the government to engage in a discussion, explain their point of view, and engage in a “democratic exchange of opposing views.”  The U.S.justification for its non-appearance is suspect; it comes on the heels of its talk of backing away from the UN Human Rights Council.  In fact, previous administrations have appeared during times of contention and domestic litigation over alleged human rights abuse.

U.S. participation in the IACHR is essential to our ability to seek redress for victims of human rights violations.  For law students hoping to contribute to human rights law through the use of the IACHR as a means to increase awareness of human rights violations throughout the Western Hemisphere, and for law professors who endeavor to encourage and inspire such work by pointing to the Commission as an entity where such gains may be made, the failure of the administration to attend bodes ill for human rights law and human dignity.

[Editors' Note:  This post is part of a series on the US absence from the IACHR hearing on March 21, 2017.  The initial post, by Professor Sarah Paoletti, is here, and the next in the series, by JoAnn Kamuf Ward, is here.  Professor Johanna Kabl comments here and commentary from Margaret Drew and Lauren Carasik is here.]

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