Rhetorical and normative commitment to both national sovereignty and popular sovereignty has always existed in tension in the Americas. In the past 15 years the growing trend has been for countries and the new crop of multilateral organizations to emphasize—both in rhetoric and practice—national sovereignty over the rights of citizens and popular sovereignty.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the founding charters and recent actions of Union of South American Republics (UNASUR) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).
For example, the preamble to UNASUR’s charter asserts “unlimited respect” for state sovereignty and only later mentions “unlimited respect for human rights.” Later the charter articulates the organization’s main purpose: regional integration and global rebalancing. But what is that global rebalancing supposed to be oriented toward? UNASUR’s charter and practice makes it clear: respect for national sovereignty—a principle that is at odds with the history, protections and practice of human rights. And as we reveal in our forthcoming report, Liberals, Rogues & Enablers, if Brazil, Cuba, and Venezuela’s actions in the UN Human Rights Commission on countries like Syria, Ukraine and Belarus, that concept extends beyond the Western Hemisphere.
That Latin America, and Latin American democracies in particular, are part of this is particularly sad. The American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man—developed and signed by all the countries of the Americas—predated the United Nations approval of Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man led to the the formation of the inter-American system of human rights. The first regional system of its kind, the inter-American system of human rights expanded in the 1990s and 2000s to include a new generation of rights, including indigenous, women’s and LGBT rights.
Both UNASUR and CELAC have included in their charters language echoing the OAS’s Democratic Charter to protect and defend democracy. But, with the exception of UNASUR’s actions in the wake of the 2009 coup d’etat in Honduras and over the accelerated impeachment of former president Fernando Lugo of Paraguay, both the South American body and CELAC have systematically overlooked the deterioration of democracy in the region.
According to its own mandate, UNASUR’s role in monitoring elections is to accompany a state’s electoral commission—a sharp contrast to the international standard of serving as an independent arbiter between popular will and the state. Nowhere was this pro-government bias more prominent than in Venezuela’s 2013 presidential elections to replace deceased president Hugo Chávez. Despite a broad popular outcry over alleged pre-electoral violations in the wake of the closeness of the election results, UNASUR held firm in its election-day endorsement of the process. In a statement UNASUR declared: “the results must be respected since they originate in the National Electoral Council, CNE, the only competent authority in the matter according to Venezuela’s constitution and legal framework.”
The net effect of these new bodies and their toothless, plagiarized democracy clauses has been to create parallel forums more favorable to the interests of autocrats. While that suits Cuba, Ecuador, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic, the larger question is why other countries have continued to collaborate, especially those that publicly and loudly proclaim their commitment to multilateral institutions and norms.
The responsibility, though, goes beyond the individual states. Citizens, media, and activists should demand more of multilateral organizations such as UNASUR and CELAC and their states that occupy them. Sure, the endless series of speech and pontification fests don’t always make for good, critical reporting or provide much of a hook for citizens to demand accountability of their elected officials—especially when there are still many more immediate issues closer to home. But defending human rights at home means defending them collectively as well—even in institutions that purport to protect them and fall short.