What was most surprising about Venezuela’s announcement in April 2017 that it would pull out of the OAS wasn’t the decision—the country had long resisted international norms and institutions—but the muted response to it. While the OAS went ahead with its high-level meeting to discuss Venezuela several weeks later, few governments spoke out against the break with the half-century-old regional institution. The path had been set when Venezuela withdrew from the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 2012 and two years later when the constitutional court in the Dominican Republic determined that it wasn’t bound to the inter-American system. The system was already eroded.
At this point, it is unclear whether other countries—such as Nicaragua and Bolivia—will follow. But a precedent has been set with no real diplomatic cost for breaking with the hemisphere’s institutional legacy; it’s easier now to imagine this occurring again as governments try to shake off international accountability for how they treat their citizens. As we have documented in past reports, the same has occurred in other arenas as well, as countries now turn to nonobjective, unprofessional election monitoring teams from UNASUR or attempt to limit or constrain other international monitors.
Fortunately, within this crisis of regional multilateral norms, several countries—such as Mexico and Argentina—have taken the lead in calling for regional action. And surprisingly, there have appeared cracks within the once-solid blocs of pro-Venezuelan countries, ALBA, and PetroCaribe. In the April 3 OAS Permanent Council meeting, seven PetroCaribe countries voted to express their concerns over the deterioration of democracy in Venezuela.
Could Ecuador follow? The newly elected president, Lenin Moreno, even though of the same party as former president Rafael Correa—Alianza País—is reputedly more moderate; and even Correa has called for elections as the solution to the crisis in Venezuela. Ecuador’s voting record in the UNHRC, in which it has broken with ALBA allies and anti-democratic members of the Global South (Russia and China) on key votes on Syria and North Korea, demonstrates that there are pro-democratic sentiments within the country’s foreign ministry.
As we have shown in this report, support for human rights’ norms internationally and for multilateral institutions goes beyond democracy and traditional human rights. As our analysis of the compliance with ILO 169 demonstrates, many of the same countries that have shown a commitment to human rights overseas have also made the most progress in protecting indigenous rights domestically (Peru, Chile, Colombia), with one exception. Mexico still lacks an enabling law for previous and informed consent. More surprising, given both the size of its indigenous population and its reputation as a progressive world leader under the PT, is Brazil, which has yet to even sign the convention.
International norms and the liberal order are at risk globally, not just in the Western Hemisphere. In past reports, we have shown that countries like Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, and at times even Brazil (an enabler under PT governments) have made common cause with countries like Turkey, China and Russia in the UNHRC and beyond. Now is not the time for the United States to walk away from these bodies. All of them have their flaws, but it is the time to look to reform them through the leadership of the United States and other committed countries.
Among our proposals are:
- The U.S. State Department should include reports on how countries vote on international human rights cases and matters of democracy in multilateral institutions in its annual Human Rights Report. Much as the reports help to guide U.S. policy to support human rights in those countries, such a tracking and monitoring effort could be used as a leverage point to identify and promote countries that are actively engaged in defending human rights and democracy internationally;
- This report includes a set of proposed reforms that would help to reduce the UNHRC’s reputation and action as a club for non-democracies. Developed by Salvia and Peschke, they include changing the vote to join the UNHRC from secret to a public ballot and instituting a requirement that to serve on the Council members must be willing to accept the visits of UN special rapporteurs and UN investigators;
- With allies in the region like Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Chile, and Costa Rica, the U.S. should apply pressure on Venezuela to engage in meaningful dialogue under the OAS and should work to shore up regional commitments and mechanisms to detect and alert members to democratic backsliding and act on behalf of the Inter-American Democratic Charter; and
- The United States needs to remain engaged in the inter-American system of human rights, including attending and participating in hearings of the Commission, regardless of the state of those cases in the U.S. court system. Such efforts would help to restore regional confidence in the OAS and the U.S.’s commitment to maintaining and strengthening it in the face of a series of challenges by member countries.
The hemisphere and the world are safer, more prosperous and more stable under a shared set of norms and institutions intended to promote cooperation and human rights and popular sovereignty. At a time when questions abound over their future, now is the time to work to shore them up by recognizing and rewarding champions of that order and working with them to renew confidence and restore them with the value and importance of those institutions. Venezuela’s announcement in April that it would pull out of the OAS and the country’s tragic humanitarian, political, economic, and human rights meltdown were all predictable years ago. The fallout regionally will affect migration, crime, narcotics trafficking, and security across the region. The hemisphere has to be willing to act to support the progressive norms that it established to defend popular sovereignty and human rights. That demands acting early and forcefully. The normative framework exists and the threats are real; all too often the political will has been lacking. This requires, also, U.S. leadership.