The human rights atrocities before and during World War II taught the world that governments alone could not be entrusted with the lives and rights of their inhabitants. To prevent a return of those horrors, the post-war powers created a set of norms and multilateral institutions, where, for the first time in history, the Westphalian concept of national sovereignty was checked by that of popular sovereignty; and the implication was that extra-national institutions had the right to speak out and even the obligation to act to defend the rights and lives of citizens.
From this consensus emerged the United Nations, a body of international law—and later institutions—protecting the human rights of all people, even from their own governments, and dozens of newly independent countries.
The shifting of the balance of world power away from the developed world that crafted those norms and institutions to the Global South has raised an urgent question: can this normative framework and the body of international law and practice be adapted and preserved? Many of the countries of the Global South place a greater rhetorical and practical emphasis on national sovereignty, weakening the consensus that led to and sustained (however imperfectly) the international infrastructure to protect human rights.
The limited right of intervention
When they signed these treaties, governments were agreeing there are rights intrinsic to every human being that a government is obliged to protect (or provide, in the case of social and economic rights). With that came a global obligation to ensure that these rights are protected.
In Latin America what emerged from this movement was the Organization of American States, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court on Human Rights. During the dark days of military dictatorships, of disappearances and torture, the Court and Commission became a powerful vocal advocate for, and protector of, human rights in the region.
More recently, though, the Inter-American system has suffered a series of attacks to weaken its independence and jurisdiction. While it has dodged the most serious of those, the ongoing debate over its reform—out of which could come some positive changes—means the opportunity for governments (of both the left and the right) to reduce its independence and import still exist.
With the rise of the Global South, Latin American governments are increasingly siding with other countries such as China, Russia, Turkey, and South Africa in challenging arguments for intervention to protect human rights in favor of national sovereignty. Unfortunately, since foreign policy activism is relatively new to many of the countries in the Western Hemisphere, the network of think tanks, human rights organizations and the media have tended to focus internally, rather than on monitoring and reporting on the foreign policies of their governments. This is particularly true—and understandable—when it comes to multilateral institutions, where votes, maneuverings, and discussions are difficult to follow and often done behind closed doors.
Yet increasingly this is where many countries are exercising their newfound power and agenda—often times not true to their rhetorical commitment to human rights, enshrined in both their own constitutions and in international law. Whether it is Brazil abstaining in the United Nations Security Council from the vote on the intervention in Libya, or Venezuela voting against human rights resolutions about Iran and Syria in the UN Human Rights Council—both were argued as reflecting the countries’ respect for national sovereignty and non-interference in the affairs of allies.
And both votes received little attention or debate in the national or international media.
The same is playing out in the region, whether through governments in the hemisphere failing to act to uphold the OAS’s Inter-American Democratic Charter over alleged violations to democratic government and human rights or in the creation of parallel multilateral institutions with no meaningful commitment to human rights.
The most obvious attempt to sideline the OAS has been by Ecuadorian President Correa. The voluble president proposed that CELAC (the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, with membership mirroring the OAS minus the U.S. and Canada) replace the OAS as the main regional organization. Not surprisingly, one of CELAC’s main tropes since its formation has not been democracy and human rights but national sovereignty and the right of nations to establish their own form of government.
Similarly, the South American Union (UNASUR) has also managed to leave out any commitment to monitor democratic rights, including guaranteeing free and fair elections and the obligations of member states to enforce it. As a result, the UNASUR electoral observation mission in Venezuela in 2014, in one of the closest presidential elections in the country’s history, was largely a pro-forma affair limited to the day of balloting.
So far, the governments in Latin America emphasizing national sovereignty at the expense of popular sovereignty have dominated the regional conversation. This is largely because there is yet to exist a full reporting and discussion—within these countries and in regional media—of the ways in which these post-WWII norms that have benefited the region are quietly being eroded. It’s time now for human rights activists, think tanks and media to inform voters and hold their own governments accountable not just for their internal policies regarding democracy and rights, but also their policies and actions externally.