On Monday, May 23, 2016, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR or Commission) announced that a budget crisis was forcing it to “suspend visits it had planned for this year, as well as its 159th and 160th sessions,” scheduled for July and October. In addition, the IACHR warned that if it did not receive an infusion of funding or promises of support by June 15 it would lose “nearly half its personnel” after July 31 this year.
The crown jewel of multilateralism in the hemisphere, the IACHR forms a key part of the inter-American system of human rights. Based on the 1948 American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, the inter-American human rights system is comprised of the Commission and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (Court), both independent bodies of the Organization of American States (OAS). In its 57 years of existence the IACHR has led hemispheric and global human rights jurisprudence in areas such as state accountability for forced disappearances, freedom from torture, freedom of expression, and indigenous, women’s and LGBT rights.
The IACHR’s financial crisis stems from the lack of financial contribution by member states. In its press release, the IACHR notes that the regular budget of the Commission is “less than 5 million dollars, which amounts to $0.005 per person in the hemisphere per year.” That budget comes from the OAS regular fund that is supported by member quotas and from donations, which “can be unstable and unpredictable, as the current crisis shows.”
To fill the short-term funding gap the IACHR has asked for emergency support which it must receive—either in funds or commitments—before June 15. But over the long-term, the discrepancy between the mandate of the IACHR to defend and promote human rights across all 34 member states and the actual financial resources is too great to fill through emergency donations. In comparison, the press release notes that “the Council of Europe earmarks 41.5% of its budget to the promotion and protection of human rights, [while] the OAS earmarks 6% of its budget to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.”
Though reaching a crisis this summer, this state of financial distress is not new. The IACHR (as well as the Court) have long experienced a wide gap between the mandate they have been given by the OAS and its member states and the resources provided to it. Insufficient resources have led to the large backlog of petitions and cases waiting to be heard, sometimes for years after submission (which itself often is years after the initial human rights violation, due to the need to exhaust domestic judicial options first).
In its press release, the Commission expresses its regrets to civil society groups preparing to participate in the upcoming sessions. The suspension of the sessions, the press release says, will have a “direct impact on the Commission’s capacity to make progress in processing complaints of human rights violations, since it is during these sessions that the Commissioners analyze, debate, and approve reports on petitions and cases.”
While there can be a multitude of reasons that member states do not give more generously to the OAS system, and specifically to the IACHR, in recent years there has been an attempt to neutralize the Commission by countries that have disputed the system’s mandate to offer recommendations and report on violations of internationally protected human rights. While an earlier attempt to defang the Commission failed in 2013, among some countries the resistance to the independent body and international norms remains. Those governments have continued to push their agenda by reducing funding or directing resources to other multilateral organizations, such as UNASUR, that promise to protect human rights in their charter, but, in reality, defer to claims of national sovereignty by governments.
The inter-American system remains the central framework in the region to defend and promote human rights. It would represent an historic and insurmountable loss if those members that feel threatened by, or apathetic to, the international human rights norms are able to achieve financially what they were unable to do politically: neutralize one of the world’s original and pre-eminent protectors of human rights.