(Washington, D.C.) – Member countries of the Organization of American States (OAS) should promptly ensure that the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights receives enough financial support to fulfill its mandate, Human Rights Watch said today. The commission, a key defender of human rights in the Americas, faces a financial crisis that threatens justice and protection to victims of abuses across the continent.
On May 23, 2016, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) announced that it faces a financial crisis that may force it to lay off almost half its staff and suspend hearings scheduled for July and October. The commission receives financing in part from the OAS and in part from voluntary grants from various countries, both OAS members and others.
“The IACHR has long been the last hope of victims in the region who have struggled for years to see their rights upheld in domestic judicial systems,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “If OAS member countries don’t address this financial crisis, it will cast serious doubts on their commitment to human rights, and raise suspicions that they want to do away with the commission’s scrutiny.”
Since its establishment in 1959, the commission has been key in bolstering human rights in the region. The commission – and the cases it has brought to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights – has helped strengthen universal human rights standards. Such standards relate, amongst others, to the incompatibility of amnesties for serious human rights violations with human rights law, the scope of criminal military jurisdiction, access to public information, the rights of LGBT people, and gender-based violence.
The commission has also protected hundreds of victims and their families from violations by issuing precautionary measures. It is currently supervising compliance by various governments with hundreds of precautionary measures, and it issues dozens of new measures every year. If OAS member states fail to promptly address this financial crisis, the risks for activists, human rights defenders, and others are likely to increase, Human Rights Watch said.
The commission’s hearings, which could be suspended this year if the financial crisis is not addressed, help bring to light abuses faced by victims throughout the region. Every year, dozens of human rights organizations bring complaints of abuses before the commission and have the opportunity to call government authorities to account on their rights record in what is the most important human rights forum in the Americas.
The OAS has repeatedly stressed the importance of the inter-American human rights system in upholding human rights and democracy in the region, and has committed to overhaul the financial support of the system. In March 2013, the General Assembly of the OAS “reaffirm[ed] its commitment to attain[ing] full financing of the inter-American human rights system” through OAS funding and asked individual countries to make voluntary contributions “while that commitment is gradually fulfilled.”
However, the OAS has yet to live up to its commitment and the commission continues to rely on voluntary donations, which account for around half of its budget. Such donations – especially from non-OAS member states – steeply decreased in 2015 and 2016, fostering this financial crisis.
“A fall in monetary donations from Europe may have triggered this current crisis but the primary responsibility for financing the commission lies with OAS countries, which created it to protect the rights of their own,” Vivanco said.
On May 25, during a session of the Permanent Council of the OAS – one of the main bodies of the organization – the Mexican government suggested that the commission could be blamed for the crisis. The Mexican ambassador to the OAS, Luis Alfonso de Alba Góngora, suggested that the commission could be receiving less funding due to its “partiality” and “delays” in addressing cases, and asked the OAS to take “corrective measures” to overhaul the commission.
In April, 2016, a group of international experts appointed by the commission refuted Mexico’s official account of the disappearance of 43 students from a teacher’s college in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero state. The experts said that the detainees had been subjected to abuse and that the official investigation was marred by the mishandling, loss, and possible destruction of key evidence. The experts were forced to end its investigation after the Mexican government failed to renew its mandate.
“The Mexican government appears to be jumping at the chance to use this financial crisis to weaken the commission, which dared to challenge it,” Vivanco said. “That would be a slap in the face to victims of atrocities in Mexico and elsewhere in the region.”