“The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened” famously declared John F. Kennedy in his Civil Rights Announcement of 1963. Some 50 years later, such a remark coming from an American official would inspire derision. From Guantanamo Bay to the Snowden scandal, Washington can no longer fashion itself as a beacon of human rights, and has turned instead into a caricature, hypocritically professing high moral values without actually adhering to them. And yet Latin America can’t escape from its shadow.
Imposing a normative hegemony has required sophisticated mechanisms, which provide the semblance of legitimacy on the surface, but expose insidious contradictions upon reading the fine print.
Ever since the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, the US has claimed almost the entire western hemisphere as its own backyard while reserving the right to regulate its internal affairs. As international norms have evolved, this doctrine was distilled into the benign-sounding Organization of American States (OAS). The first intercontinental organization, it is tasked with strengthening regional cooperation, peace and human rights while “respecting the principle of nonintervention” (sic).
Headed by the US and based in Washington DC, the OAS has gradually evolved into a supranational organization in its own right, complete with a Secretariat and a progressive human rights charter, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). Through the Declaration of San Jose and the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, the IACHR has established a comprehensive legal system, safeguarded by a Tribunal entrusted with judicial powers. The Court’s job is to receive individual complaints for crimes not addressed by the member states and to seek compensation for victims. Lucky for Washington, the decisions are only binding to 23 out of the 35 OAS members.
The US, despite being a founding state of the Organization and hosting the IACHR headquarters in Washington DC, has refused to ratify the human rights charters, implicitly falling outside the reach of the Court. This legal vacuum has allowed Washington to assume a holier-than-thou approach on Latin American countries, enforcing its own human rights doctrine while avoiding prosecution for its abuses. Events such as the Bay of Pigs invasion, the war against Nicaragua or the funds funneled to terrorist groupings across the continent have had no legal consequences.
In 1998, the US took it a step further. Keeping true to its modus operandi, the US pushed for the creation, inside the IACHR, of a Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression (SRFE). On paper, it was supposed to complement the other seven rapporteurs and constitute the cornerstone of the OAS’s human rights enforcing system. In reality, its goals were far less noble. Unlike the other rapporteurs, the SRFE is the only one who has sufficient funding to serve full time. Indeed, financed by the US, it receives five times more resources than the average rapporteur and is the only one outside the Commission’s oversight.
While the past achievements of the IACHR are remarkable, proving its cardinal importance in sanctioning the crimes of South America’s dictatorial regimes and denouncing acts of systematic torture and disappearances, after 1998 the organization’s purpose was hijacked. Under American leadership, it has been geared away from safeguarding human rights and liberties towards acting more like America’s voice in the region. Major abuses perpetrated by friendly regimes or directed against Washington’s enemies have received virtually no attention from the IACHR. For example, the organization has supported the short-lived 2002 military coup in Venezuela yet has never prosecuted former CIA operative Luis Posada Carriles, suspected of plotting terrorist attacks in Cuba, Panama, and Venezuela.
The SRFE himself has come under fire for skewing the meaning of freedom of expression so as to reflect the interests the continent’s large media outlets, groups that already receive US funding. Critics further maintain that it has shown its political bias by promoting dissenting voices against the governments of a few selected Latin American countries that have refused to bend to the US’s agenda, like Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua.
Fortunately, efforts have been made to wean the region away from Washington’s influence. Countries that have felt wronged by the way the IACHR has conducted its affairs have pushed for the reform of the organization so as to more truly reflect the will of its member states. Spearheaded by Ecuador’s firebrand president, Rafael Correa, an initiative was put forth in 2012. In a nutshell, the system should be funded and staffed only by the parties that are members of the San Jose Declaration (i.e., not the US), the organization’s headquarters should be moved to Argentina, and the Commission should adopt a code of conduct.
The central point of this reform though is changing the financing mechanism of the IACHR. If passed, the reform would guarantee equal resources and footing for all eight rapporteurs, putting an end to the Washington’s influence in dictating a hierarchy of human rights. Even if freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, safeguarding it shouldn’t come at the expense of other equally important rights. The package, initially rejected in 2013, will come under discussion again during the June OAS summit.
The US waived its right to act as a moral compass for Latin America the moment it refused to sign any legally binding document that would have exposed it to supranational oversight. Like Kennedy said, human rights are indeed interdependent and indivisible. But when they are used as rationalizations, meant simply to justify a country’s foreign policy interests, they are taken hostage and divested of any meaning.