The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR or Commission) held its 164th Extraordinary Period of Sessions in Mexico City, September 4–8, 2017. During this period of sessions, the Commission adopted a resolution, Human Rights and the Fight against Impunity and Corruption, after its on-site visit to Guatemala, where the Commission became concerned over Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales’s decision to declare the head of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), Iván Velásquez Gómez, persona non grata. The resolution reaffirms the importance of the fight against corruption to combat impunity; reminds states of their obligation to implement mechanisms to prevent, investigate, and punish any form of corruption; and reminds states to fulfill their obligation to protect human rights defenders.
At the request of civil society organizations, the IACHR has taken a close look at the current human rights situation in Venezuela and will prepare a third report on the state of human rights in the country. The report will focus on democratic institutions; violence and citizen security; freedom of expression; and economic, social, and cultural rights. This report comes after Venezuela’s worst year, following an increase in violence, economic instability, medicine and food shortages, and a lack of international consensus on how to address the current crises.
The Commission also held hearings on the human rights situations in Cuba, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and the United States. Unlike their neighbors to the south, Central America has a varied record of cooperation with the Commission. Costa Rica was the most cooperative, the only country earning the highest score for participation, in a hearing on freedom of expression in the country. Most of the remaining countries were neutral or, like Nicaragua, uncooperative.
In this period, both the United States and the Dominican Republic returned to the IACHR to attend their hearings, while Haiti joined the likes of Cuba and Nicaragua and decided not to attend. However, presence alone does not equal cooperation and participation. In fact, the United States and the Dominican Republic were the most uncooperative during their hearings.
The United States and the IACHR at the 164th Session
In our last report, we highlighted the United States’s decision to not attend the IACHR’s 161st session hearings on topics relating to President Donald Trump’s executive orders on immigration policy—including the “travel ban” barring citizens from seven Middle Eastern countries from entering the United States—and on the expedition of environmental reviews and approval of high-priority infrastructure projects. In this round the two hearings involving the United States both focused on the situation of human rights on the U.S.’s Guantanamo Bay naval base. The United States was present at the hearings, but refused to respond or discuss any of the concerns raised by civil society organizations.
In the first hearing, “U.S. Military Commissions in Guantanamo Bay,” requested by the Military Commissions Defense Organization, the organization denounced the United States for illegally holding a now-40-year-old Pakistani man at Guantanamo since 2003, claiming lack of access to defense, illegal destruction of evidence of torture, and failure to prove the victim was a combatant. For its part, the United States refused to address the individual case, which must first go through numerous federal court and other proceedings in the country. It added that the IACHR did not have jurisdiction to apply international humanitarian law, since the United States is not a signatory to the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights.
During the second hearing, the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) alleged violation of the human rights of Djamel Ameziane, who was reportedly illegally detained and held at the Guantanamo Bay detention center in 2002. The organizations claimed Ameziane was a victim of inhumane treatment, was not permitted contact with his family, and suffered physical and psychological damage as well as financial difficulties. They asked the Commission to urge the United States to apologize and provide the victim with medical care and financial support and recommended that the IACHR remain involved in issues related to Guantanamo Bay. In response, the United States questioned the need for more IACHR intervention on issues related to the detention center and recalled that the Commission is not a judicial body, and therefore the country does not have to follow the Commission’s recommendations.
As the leader in promoting democracy across the world, the United States continues to set an alarming precedent in its refusal to address human rights issues at the Commission. The disingenuous argument that the United States is not a member of the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights—while true—undermines U.S. support and authority to urge compliance with the Commission on the part of other member states. Similarly, the country’s reminder in the second case that the Commission is not a court and has no power of enforcement—while, again, true and known to anyone who is familiar with the inter-American system—reveals 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 it effective.