Tuesday, March 28, 2017
For decades, advocates from the United States have petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on human rights concerns resulting from U.S. law and policy. Key concerns range from the death penalty to voter disenfranchisement, from indigenous, migrant and immigrant rights to domestic violence. Since 9/11, proceedings have increasingly addressed rights abuses arising from the detention of individuals in Guantanamo, the use of military tribunals, and other actions taken under the pretext of national security. And for decades, advocates have been strategizing about how to get those outside of the hearing room to pay attention to the hearings and the ultimate findings and recommendations of the Commission. Ironically, it is the United States’ failure to appear for hearings scheduled during the 161st Period of Session that has generated the most media coverage and attention.
In the media and here, people have questioned and hypothesized about what the US’ failure to appear means for human rights under this administration? Does it portend greater isolationism? Does it confirm fears that this administration does not respect international human rights and the mechanisms in place to protect and promote them? Is this merely a symptom of disorganization (or chaos?) within the State Department? Or perhaps this action reveals something more insidious about the role of the State Department in this administration? But the real question for human rights defenders is: what do we do now? How do we ensure the strength and credibility of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and ensure the Commission has the capacity to continue playing a critical role in advancing human rights across the region?
At least part of that answer may come from our neighbors to the north – Canada.
The failure of the United States to show up on the last day of hearing of the 161st Period of Sessions marked the end of what has been a troubled year for the Commission. Just last May, the Commission revealed that it was in dire financial straits, and announced the suspension of hearings and pending layoffs of a significant percentage of its staff. Those announcements came amidst ongoing discussions among governments, advocates and Commissioners about the IACHR’s core functions, marked by numerous proposals from regional governments with a vested interest in undercutting the Commission’s independence and autonomy. Throughout the deeply politicized struggles at the OAS General Assembly and the Commission itself, the United States served as a bulwark against proposals that undermined the Inter-American Human Rights system, and the Commission in particular. The U.S. has consistently been the principle financial contributor to the Commission, and has spearheaded efforts to ensure the Commission remains viable and independent.
So, in many respects, the U.S. has led. But as advocates regularly reminded the United States, its critical efforts were consistently undermined by U.S. failure to ratify the American Convention on Human Rights, the repeated refrain, on and off the record, that the U.S. does not recognize the jurisdiction of the Commission to interpret the United States’ obligations under the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man or the few international human rights treaties that the United States had ratified, as well as the United States’ lackluster – at best – performance disseminating and implementing Commission recommendations. The recent no-show – alongside Cuba and Nicaragua – further undermines the United States advocacy power within the OAS. This is true even if we assume the State Department maintains a commitment to the Commission as an independent and autonomous promoter and protector of human rights in the region. It is looking to our neighbor to the north that we might glean a seed of hope, that there remains a supportive voice in North America.
Yes, Canada, we need you-now more than ever.
The U.S. and Canada have often been lumped together in the OAS, because of geographic proximity, language similarities, and federalist systems, as well as mixed levels of engagement with the Inter-American System. Yet, in recent months you, Canada, have certainly been leagues ahead when it comes to supporting human rights. In response to the Muslim and refugee ban enacted through Trump’s executive order, you responded that refugees were always welcome in Canada. In response to hate speech and virulently discriminatory rhetoric, you’ve stood up and spoken for the rights of women and people of color. Indeed you’ve gone even further to commit to having a truly representative government where women and people of color hold positions of power and authority. We have been watching in awe and thanks down here in the United States.
Yet your participation at the Commission, like ours, has lagged behind. You, too, have failed to ratify the American Convention on Human Rights. You, too, face criticism before the Commission on issues such as gross violations of rights of indigenous women, detention of refugees and, right to freedom of expression and antiterrorist legislation, among others. And you, too, have failed to take real action to implement recommendations from the Commission.
It is time for you to lead. Yes, Ratify the American Convention! Yes, assert your commitment to the Inter-American Human Rights system through strong public statements, and through robust engagement! Yes, call on your neighbors to do the same! Your leadership can help influence the OAS member countries in the Caribbean and demonstrate to those countries who have not ratified the American Convention, the value of doing so. Your leadership before the OAS General Assembly can help ensure the financial stability, independence and autonomy of the Commission. The Commission needs your leadership now, more than ever, and so do we. A strong and credible voice on human rights will reap benefits across the Americas – including for those of us in the United States.
[Editors' Note: This blog is part of a Scholarly Voices "blog-in" on US participation in the IACHR. The other blogs in the series are linked here.]