The Organization of American States’ (OAS) Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR or the Commission) is the premier forum for human rights discussions in the Western Hemisphere, serving as a forum for civil society and government to discuss human rights issues in a constructive setting. But despite the Commission’s many important precedents, including on disappearances and recognizing same-sex marriages, the trend of declining adherence to and respect for the Inter-American System that we noted in our last National Endowment for Democracy-funded report work, continues. What makes this trend more alarming is that one of the countries that has been lax in cooperating with the Commission is the United States.
Since the beginning of the Trump administration, participation within the IACHR has been rare. In a move that linked the U.S. government with the likes of Nicaragua and Cuba, the Trump administration decided not to attend the April 2017 session on the four hearings pertaining to the United States. In a statement, the U.S. State Department justified its absence by arguing “it [was] not appropriate for the United States to participate in these hearings while litigation on these matters is ongoing in U.S. court.” But this wasn’t the first (or the last) time U.S. government officials have attended hearings on controversial issues that had been the subject of litigation. Past administrations had made similar arguments, but at least they had bothered to show up.
During the 164 session of IACHR hearings, the United States had two hearings on the situation of human rights on the U.S.’s Guantanamo Bay naval base. In this case, although the U.S. delegation attended, it refused to respond or discuss any of the concerns raised by civil society organizations. The delegation made mention that the IACHR did not have jurisdiction to apply international humanitarian law, since the U.S. is not a signatory to the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights (which has always been true so hardly bears repeating). The U.S. representatives added that because the Commission was not a judicial body, it did not need to follow the Commission’s recommendations (again also true but hardly worthy of mention). While it is true that the U.S. is not a signatory to the Convention or that the Commission has no power of enforcement, the U.S.’s comments revealed a troubling resistance to the very nature of the inter-American system that if followed by all member states would weaken not just the body’s moral authority but the delicate trust and respect that make the IACHR so effective.
But just as things seemed like they were looking up—during the 166th session the U.S. delegation was much more respectful although it did fail to address the topic of the hearings—at the 167th session earlier this year, the delegation’s tone shifted dramatically. During the two U.S. hearings on the regulation of gun sales and social violence and the human rights of persons affected by the cancellation of the Temporary Protection Status and Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals programs, the American delegation was dismissive. The delegation was unwilling to interact with the Commission in a constructive matter, criticizing the Commission for encroaching on issues concerning domestic politics and on the Commission’s spending excessive amounts of resources to pursue “thematic cases.” For those reasons, the delegation said it was becoming difficult for the U.S. to meaningfully engage with the Commission.
Although the U.S. is not the first to breakaway from the IACHR—in 2000, under former President Alberto Fujimori, Peru objected to the recommendations and reports of the Commission and last year Jamaica didn’t send a government representative to a hearing on race-related state violence—as the most powerful country within the Inter-American system (and one that likes to refer to the Commission on issues pertaining to Venezuela and Nicaragua), the United States’s actions are crucial to sustain the hemisphere’s fragile normative order. From the not-so-subtle threats of ending donations to the Commission unless it downplays cases involving the U.S. to decreasing the size of the U.S. delegation, the U.S.’s resistance to cooperate fully with the body undermines U.S. authority to urge compliance with the Commission on the part of other member states, including the rogue governments of Nicaragua and Venezuela.
Trump’s disinterest in the region is blatantly apparent. He has yet to set foot in the region, having skipped the VIII Summit of the Americas in April to focus on a military strike in Syria, and has failed to appoint diplomats in key positions in the State department for the Western Hemisphere. Diplomats from the region are wondering who they can turn to on matters of security, trade, and other issues.
Governments have to do more than show up
Since our first report Liberals, Rogues & Enablers: The International Order in the 21st Century, countries have been less cooperative in the Inter-American System of Human Rights, with only one country, Panama, receiving a perfect score for constructive participation. Assuming the Trump administration continues its disinterest in the region and the body, it’s more than likely participation with the Commission will continue to decrease.
Already it has become more common for country delegations to read from a prepared script without addressing specific concerns brought up by civil society. Even in follow up cases like the reoccurring hearings on the Ayotzinapa case of the 43 missing students in Mexico, where the government of Mexico is expected to report on the progress made in the investigation, both civil society and the Commission have noted the lack of new information beyond the usual and repetitive opening statement. But by simply sticking to the script, country delegations fail to use these hearings for what their original design envisioned: opportunities for dialogue between civil society and the government to find solutions to human rights issues in the country.
As the leading government in the Inter-American system, the United States has to be a role model and once again become an active participant in the hearings and demonstrate its support for human rights and its willingness to continue talks with civil society outside the Commission.