Recovering International Norms and the Democratic Consensus, and Why It Matters
There is no perfect comparative measure for how a government supports (or doesn’t support) human rights and democracy internationally. First, there is the issue of private bilateral discussions on these topics that many of us will never be privy to. And even if a government raises human rights concerns publicly, it’s difficult to assess how vigorously these issues are pushed once behind closed doors or if they are just raised pro forma.
It is also difficult to assess or evaluate what a government or multilateral institution doesn’t do. How does an observer calculate the lack of action by a government—individually or in a multilateral body—in the face of flagrant human rights abuses or the clear deterioration of democratic institutions and governance? How should one react? At what point?
Inarguably, there are cases of violations of the independence of legislative and judicial branches by executives in Venezuela and Ecuador that would count when measured against the OAS’s or even UNASUR’s or CELAC’s own stated commitments to democracy. In those cases, the lack of action is a telling measure, but of what? Bureaucratic inertia? Authoritarian design? Lack of courage? Political calculation?
Nor do we know whether action by these organizations might have been effective. UNASUR’s superficial, brazenly partisan election-monitoring rules and processes have done more harm than good, not just in the countries to which it has sent delegations but to standards regionally. UNASUR also applied that same pro-state logic when it attempted—with frustrating, disastrous results—to mediate between the Venezuelan opposition and the government during the 2015 protests. Rather than hold the state accountable for the violations of political and civil rights in the violent crackdown on protestors, in which 42 people were killed and more than 800 injured, or for arresting 3,000 demonstrators and political leaders (several of whom are still in prison as of this report), the UNASUR delegation, made up of the foreign ministers of Brazil, Ecuador and Colombia, called for both sides to reduce the polarization. The delegation’s position in the negotiations was an affront to traditional mediation efforts and human rights practice that holds states accountable for the treatment of citizens and to political and civil rights as core principles to uphold and protect in moments of confrontation between citizens and their governments.1
At the UN Human Rights Commission there is a fair degree of diversity in how countries vote individually. As shown earlier, Brazil, in particular, tends to show a greater allegiance to its allies in the Global South—Turkey, China and Russia—and its neighbors by voting against or abstaining in key votes and by refusing to raise political or civil rights concerns directly with those countries. These calculations place the democratic Brazilian government often in the same camp as nondemocratic countries and with the competitive authoritarian governments of Ecuador and Venezuela.2 In this Brazil stands in contrast to clear international champions of human rights such as Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, and Mexico. Oddly, when it comes to its own policies, Brazil holds itself to a higher standard than it does its allies and fellow members of the Global South, accepting all the human rights concerns raised by member countries in the UNHRC/UPR process.
Within the inter-American system of human rights, however, Brazil’s role has been less straightforward. Recently Brazil has cooperated with the Commission and Court; it has only two cases pending before the higher body and has fully participated in the thematic hearings held by the Commission, and in fact initiated one. But in 2012, after the Commission called for temporarily suspending the building of the Belo Monte dam in Brazil over concerns that local indigenous groups had not been sufficiently consulted, Brazil joined Ecuador and other ALBA countries in an effort to gut the inter-American system. The government eventually backed off and later, in 2014, backed a solid candidate for the Commission.3
Nevertheless, despite its economic size relative to the other members of the hemispheric community, Brazil is a miserly contributor to the system; in 2013 the Brazilian state gave only $20,000 to support the system. In contrast, the same year Argentina gave $400,000, Colombia $122,600, and Mexico $305,000.4 Arguably, too, Brazil’s continued support for UNASUR, with its feeble human rights provisions, constitutes competition for the inter-American system, not just for Brazil’s resources but the resources of other countries in the region.
As would be expected, given their low regard for political and civil rights and democratic institutions in their own countries, Bolivia, Cuba and Venezuela—and occasionally Ecuador—stand out for their commitment to nonintervention and national sovereignty, even in the most egregious cases of human rights violations in Syria and North Korea. In their own hemisphere, Venezuela and Ecuador continue to thumb their collective noses at international human rights institutions and rules, refusing to attend a number of hearings on their countries at the Commission and piling up unresolved cases in the Court. Venezuela has even rejected the jurisdiction of the Court altogether. This unprecedented action has been followed now at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum by the Dominican Republic, demonstrating that the efforts to erode the normative order are not confined to any one side. Along those lines, Colombia, a strong ally of the United States and under a longstanding democratic government, also has a mixed record, both in terms of its pro-human rights positions on the Universal Periodic Review process and in the Court—though many of its cases on the Court stem from the civil war that will, it is hoped, be resolved soon.
At the same time, a number of countries in the hemisphere have put in place regulations and laws that restrict civil society and the ability of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to receive outside assistance. Thirty or 40 years ago civil society organizations and outside support were key to opening up political space and placing pressure on autocratic governments in ways that led to the democratic transitions of the 1970s and 1980s. But as documented by the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law and the World Movement for Democracy,5 today the governments in Panama and Argentina have passed rules complicating the registration and operation of local civil society organizations, while governments in Venezuela, Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Bolivia have attempted to restrict international funding for select groups engaged in peaceful activities. Venezuela and Ecuador even prohibited domestic election observation groups.6
As with many of the antidemocratic activities that have taken place in recent years in the region, these have occurred under multilateral norms intended to protect the basic rights associated with NGOs, including freedom of association and expression. In June 2011 the OAS adopted the resolution Promotion of the Rights to Freedom of Assembly and Association in the Americas, which reiterated the rights of democratic NGOs to operate free of government harassment and to receive international support. Unfortunately, to date, the protocol has done little to curb the actions of member states that want to throw up obstacles or threaten the rights of democratic civil society that they see as a political threat. As perhaps could have been predicted, despite this regional normative commitment to the rights of civil society, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and other countries have also remained mute in international bodies when Russia, China, India, Turkey, or other countries have, in varying degrees, tried to exert authority over or close civil society groups.
And herein lies the greatest challenge to the preexisting normative order: the lack of collective action in defense of human rights and democracy. At issue is not just the inaction of the OAS to collectively respond to the serious erosion of democratic institutions and rights in cases like Venezuela and Ecuador, but the actions of UNASUR and CELAC undermining those norms by design, and the inaction of other states that should be regional leaders but have chosen to remain on the sidelines. More than just innocuous initiatives to resolve local problems regionally—a noble goal—in their charter, rhetoric and action (or lack of) by these new regional bodies have provided cover for autocrats to grab the mantle of regional leadership in the name of solidarity, resist international accountability, and dilute human rights and electoral standards.
Governments avoiding commitments and actions that infringe on their national sovereignty or interfere with domestic policy is nothing new. In fact, it is to be expected. What is new has been the lack of attention and even negligence of the media and civil society organizations in demanding greater collective responsibility and accountability of these bodies.
Perhaps it is because so little has been expected of organizations like the UNHRC, UNASUR, CELAC, and even the OAS that they have been given a pass. But the damage—in some cases intentional, in others by disinterest—to international norms and the international order has been real. As we note in this report, silence and even assent in egregiously unfair elections in Venezuela, violations of judicial independence in Ecuador, the smothering of checks and balances of power in Nicaragua, and the flagrant disregard for the inter-American human rights system by the Dominican Republic merit real consideration by a collective of states that purports to stand in favor of democracy and human rights.
Global Americans will continue to monitor the foreign policies of governments in the region regarding democracy and human rights and the actions of the region’s multilateral bodies. Based on this, the first report, we offer these tentative observations and recommendations.
- Latin American media should pay greater attention to the foreign policies of the region’s governments. In the United States, U.S. and foreign media are accustomed and oriented toward holding the U.S. foreign policy bureaucracy and executive accountable for the nation’s actions beyond its borders (though, as was witnessed in the 2003 Iraq war, far from perfectly). As Latin American governments become more important international actors in their own right, journalists and media outlets need to pay greater attention to the implications of foreign policies, relations and the directions policy makers set. That includes failing to vote to condemn notoriously repressive regimes such as North Korea’s, but other less obvious cases as well, as when neighboring governments, for example, seek to restrict local civil society. In our capacity at Global Americans we will continue to provide information for the media.
- Human rights groups and activists also need to pay greater attention to the foreign policies of their governments. While groups such as Conectas Direitos Humanos in Brazil, the Due Process of Law Foundation (DPLF), and Human Rights Watch perform such roles, they are the exception. There are few domestic groups that devote a significant amount of attention to demanding accountability for their governments’ human rights policies overseas. Part of this, of course, has grown out of the need over past decades to focus on the actions of their governments toward their own populations. But today, as we see from the actions or inaction of governments in multilateral organizations, these governments are also responsible for the rights and lives of citizens in other countries. Shining a bright light on a government’s vote in the UNHRC or lack of action in the OAS or UNASUR can help to extend the same level of accountability—and its benefits—that human rights groups have struggled to realize in their own countries to citizens in other countries.
- Citizens, media, and activists should demand more of the recent crop of multilateral organizations such as UNASUR and CELAC. As Alexander Cooley7 has argued, the growth of parallel multinational organizations and what he smartly terms “zombie election monitoring groups” has become a global phenomenon. It is particularly sad that a model created and supported by autocratic regimes in Russia and China should have found its way to the Western Hemisphere, long the example for democracy and human rights successes and norms. As we demonstrate above, not only has the model of autocratic multilateral counter-norms extended to Latin America, many elected governments in the hemisphere—even stated pro-democratic and human rights-oriented governments—have chosen to ally themselves with the authors of these institutions in forums like the UNHRC.
As our map shows, the region confronts a number of intra- and interstate challenges to international norms, including, but not limited to, human rights and democracy. Three decades after the dark era of dictatorship, Latin American and Caribbean states, civil society and media have a special responsibility to guard and defend the norms from which they benefited earlier and which they helped create for themselves and the broader global community.
2. For a concise definition of competitive authoritarianism see Levitsky, Stephen and Lucan Way, “The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism,” Journal of Democracy 13 (April 2002): 51–65.
3. Piccone, Ted. Five Rising Democracies and the Fate of the International Liberal Order (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2016), p.111.
4. Maia, C. B., et al. Desafios del Sistema Interamericano de Derechos Humanos: Nuevos Tiempos, Viejos Retos (Bogotá: Centro de Estudios de Derecho, Justicia y Sociedad, Aug. 2015), pp. 1–328.
5. International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, World Movement for Democracy Secretariat at the National Endowment for Democracy. Defending Civil Society: A Report of the World Movement for Democracy. 2nd ed. (Washington, D.C.: World Movement for Democracy, June 2012), pp. 1–64.
6. Carothers, Thomas, and Saskia Brechenmacher. Closing Space: Democracy and Human Rights Support Under Fire (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. (2014), pp. 1–75.
7. See Cooley, Alexander, “Countering Democratic Norms,” Journal of Democracy 26 (July 2015): 49–63.