Conservatives could take over key inter-American human rights body

Countries will this week elect members to the Americas’ most important institution for protecting human rights

By Angelina De Los Santos Published 6-21-2023 by openDemocracy

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2021 – the first year that the leading three commisioners were women Photo: Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos/flickr/CC

Governments across the Americas are set to take part in a crucial vote that could decide the future of a body that has been vital in protecting human rights in the region for more than 60 years.

Since 1959, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has guided countries in establishing legal standards and assisting millions of victims of violence and inequality.

It is responsible for investigating human rights violations – including unfair trials, extrajudicial executions and violence against women and vulnerable populations – and submitting cases to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR, founded in 1979). Both bodies comprise the Inter-American Human Rights System (IAHRS).

Now, rights defenders fear the commission’s future is under threat amid a vote to elect four of its seven members this week. They worry that the election of two candidates who espouse radical anti-abortion views and a conservative understanding of international law could undermine standards established by the body.

The vote will take place on Friday at the Organization of the American States’ (OAS) headquarters in Washington, DC, when 35 member countries gather for this year’s three-day General Assembly meeting.

OAS countries had nominated ten candidates to fill four vacant positions until 2027, but in an unprecedented move, four withdrew their candidacies.

Now an independent panel has claimed three of the six remaining candidates do not meet the standards expected by the American Convention on Human Rights, which include independence, impartiality, high moral authority and experience and knowledge of human rights. The warning came from a group of experts that since 2015 has been evaluating candidates for authorities in the IAHRS bodies (and making non-binding recommendations to the OAS countries).

The panel was established in response to calls from campaign groups to strengthen transparency and participation in the nomination and election processes of Inter-American authorities. Although its opinion is not binding, since its creation the panel has provided guidance to both countries and the OAS to ensure the quality and relevance of the functioning of human rights bodies, the adequate development of inter-American human rights standards, and the effective protection of people who have suffered human rights violations and not received a timely and effective response at their countries’ domestic courts.

But as the Convention criteria are not binding, one panel member – Mexican sociologist and rights expert Mariclaire Acosta – told openDemocracy she believed governments’ decisions about who to put forward tended to be largely based on alignment with their own politics.

Gloria Monique de Mees from Suriname, Pier Pigozzi (Ecuador), and Stuardo Ralón (Guatemala, who is already a commissioner and is seeking re-election), were deemed as falling below the required standards.

Having interviewed and evaluated the candidates, the panel opined that – although De Mees has experience as an academic in various fields related to treaty law, diplomacy, and human rights – she lacks competence in inter-American and international human rights standards. As De Mees has been part of the agency that represents the Suriname state before the IAHRS, the panel also raised concerns about her impartiality and “possible conflicts of interest”.

Meanwhile, the panel said the candidacies of Pigozzi and Ralón would be a “regression” on hard-won rights, citing protections for Indigenous people, the LGBTIQ+ community, sexual and reproductive rights, marriage equality and freedom of expression.

The other three candidates – Andrea Pochak (Argentina), Christopher Bulkan (Guyana) and Lidia Casas (Chile) – meet the eligibility criteria, according to the panel.

Rights advocates and civil society movements across the continent have expressed worries about the potential outcome of the election.

“The problem is not that diverse individuals join the IACHR, because diversity brings a sense of reality to what is happening [in the Americas]. The issue is whether the nominated individuals have the capacity for sobriety and impartiality when making collective decisions focused on the ultimate goal of the IACHR,” Gina Romero, executive director of the Latin American and Caribbean Network for Democracy, told openDemocracy.

The GQUAL Campaign, which brings together civil society, academics and former members of various international courts, is urging OAS states to vote in a way that meets the eligibility criteria and maintains the existing gender parity of the commission.

Troubling candidates

For many rights defenders, it is Ralón and Pigozzi’s candidacies that are particularly troubling.

Ralón, who has been on the commission since 2020, has issued a dissenting vote in some crucial cases, including on the rights of transgender and gender-diverse people and on the landmark Beatriz vs El Salvador. The latter case, brought by feminist groups and NGOs over the death of a woman in El Salvador who was denied an abortion despite her high-risk pregnancy, was the first one related to a total ban on abortion heard by the Inter-American Court. The ruling could set a precedent in Latin America and the Caribbean in the protection of reproductive rights in the region.

The panel also expressed concerns about his understanding of the role of the IAHRS, as his interpretation could “exempt [countries] from responsibility in cases of human rights violations that materialise through judicial decisions”.

As for Pigozzi, the panel found that his positions “denote regression in relation to consolidated international standards of human rights protection”. Panel members specifically mentioned his stance on marriage equality and the right of same-sex couples to adopt children, as well as sexual and reproductive rights – last year, Pigozzi said the right to abortion is non-existent.

Campaigners fear that if both men are elected, the IACHR could eventually become biased towards conservatives, with right-wing Colombian law professor Carlos Bernal Pulido already due to serve as a commissioner until 2025, when there will be another round of elections.

Among other expressions of disagreement with IACHR actions, Bernal Pulido has issued dissenting votes to commission statements to promote the recognition and protection of reproductive rights in the Americas, in order to defend “life from conception”, which was supported by Ralón Orellana. The commissioner also voiced his opposition to the IACHR’s supportive message to Mexico in 2022, when the country made a constitutional recognition of the right to receive medical care for abortion in cases of rape, as well as the decriminalisation of abortion up to week 12 in the Mexican state of Guerrero.

If an ultra-conservative interpretation of law prevails, the commission may fail to apply or take into consideration the standards of the IAHRS, rights defenders believe. Similar has happened in the US in recent years, where a conservative ‘super-majority’ on the Supreme Court has managed to reverse constitutional rulings that for decades had guaranteed women’s sexual and reproductive rights.

“If for some reason the countries opt for these candidacies, we would essentially be losing the IACHR,” said human rights lawyer Marcia Aguiluz, Women’s Link Worldwide legal director for Latin America. “We would truly be turning away from what the IACHR has historically been: a body that has contributed to the evolution and recognition of human rights.”

For Venezuelan lawyer Fanny Gómez-Lugo, director of the Women’s Equality Center, which fights for reproductive freedom, electing Ralón and Pigozzi would “break the principle of equality and non-discrimination”, the foundation of human rights, and mean that there are “first-class and second-class citizens”.

Gómez-Lugo said such a result would “discredit” and “minimise” the mandate and scope of the commission, which in recent years has played a role in supporting democracy during political crises in several Latin American countries.

The Washington Office on Latin America, an advocacy organisation advancing human rights in the Americas, is also concerned that the commission could be weakened by candidates seeking to question international human rights law.

The IAHRS panel was also alarmed by the fact that, for the first time in the history of electing commission members, three states (Brazil, Honduras and Peru) had withdrawn their nominations without offering a public explanation. This has had an “impact on the transparency of the process”, the panel said. The US also withdrew its candidate but explained that it had “lost confidence in [their] viability” for the role.

“As the countries arbitrarily nominate individuals, so to speak, we truly do not know on what premises some people are nominated,” said Aguiluz from Women’s Link Worldwide. To prevent unsuitable nominations in the future, the IAHRS panel has suggested that OAS states set up participatory and transparent mechanisms for selecting candidates.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.

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