March 19, 2013

César Gaviria Trujillo is a former president of Colombia and past secretary general of the Organization of American States.

A historic showdown set to occur at Friday’s meeting of the general assembly of the Organization of American States could determine the future of human rights protections throughout the Western Hemisphere.

A group of nations led by Ecuador is pushing to “reform” the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and its office on freedom of expression. The purported aim of these changes is to “strengthen” human rights protections. If implemented, however, the reforms will severely weaken the commission and make it easier for governments to ignore basic rights and limit free speech.

When I served as president of Colombia from 1990 to 1994, I saw how difficult it could be for national institutions to evolve and change without external pressure. As secretary general of the OAS between 1994 and 2004, I saw firsthand how effective the Inter-American Commission could be in providing this pressure when nations needed help to move forward on human rights.

The commission has played a crucial role, particularly in defending the principles of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. It has pressed for transparency and fair elections, and, equally important, it has intervened when governments sought to undermine judicial independence or free speech. A genuine democracy requires checks and balances as well as freedom of the press.

The changes being promoted would drastically curtail the autonomy that has been critical to the Inter-American Commission’s success. One proposal would prevent the commission from obtaining funds from outside the region, effectively putting a financial stranglehold on the panel. As of this year, about a third of the commission’s budget comes from Europe.

This measure would have a devastating impact, especially on the commission’s Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression, which for many years has led the fight for press freedoms throughout the region and has served as a constant thorn in the side of governments that do not believe in free speech. The office stands to lose virtually all of its budget, making it easier for governments to prosecute their critics, impose censorship and close independent media outlets.

Another reform under consideration would prevent states that have not ratified the American Convention on Human Rights from nominating members to the commission. This measure appears to be designed to limit the involvement of the United States and Canada, neither of which has ratified the convention though they are nonetheless subject to its monitoring and, most important, are major sources of financial and political support for its work.

Our region has made important progress on human rights since the dark days of the Cold War. Nearly all of this hemisphere’s dictatorships have been replaced by democracies. Yet these democracies have at times trampled on free speech and other fundamental rights. The Inter-American human rights system is the best mechanism we have for ensuring that governments in the Americas do a better job of protecting these rights and freedoms.

So far, only a handful of countries have joined Ecuador in this determined effort to weaken our regional human rights system. Those governments that are truly committed to human rights and democracy must stand up for the commission this week and put an end to this ill-conceived campaign.