June 1, 2012

DOES AN organization like the Organization of American States still have value in the 21st century? Not a few countries in Latin America have their doubts. They question, among other things, whether South and Central American nations would be better off in their own groupings not including the United States; several have been formed. Washington, for its part, has found the organization to be more of a hindrance than a help in tackling regional problems since the Chilean Socialist Jose Miguel Insulza became its secretary general in 2005.

If the OAS does play a useful role, it lies mainly in the monitoring and affirming of human rights. A democracy charter signed on Sept. 11, 2001, nominally binds member states to preserve elected government and its institutions, while its autonomous organ, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), has played an important role in calling attention to abuses and protecting individuals, civil society groups and news organizations under threat.

Not surprisingly, the commission has earned the enmity of a group of Latin American states, led by Venezuela, where both democracy and human rights have sharply deteriorated in recent years. It also has been boycotted by would-be regional superpower Brazil ever since the commission dared to question whether the government’s construction of a hydroelectric dam would trample the rights of indigenous people.

The unsurprising if alarming result is that the upcoming OAS general assembly beginning Sunday in Cochabamba, Bolivia, is due to consider proposals by Mr. Insulza and by Ecuador that would hamstring the commission. Mr. Insulza, who owes his position to Venezuela and its allies, has proposed that the assembly revise the statute and procedures of the human rights commission, which since its creation in 1959 has enjoyed considerable independence from the governments of the countries it monitors.

The “reform” proposal would limit the IACHR’s ability to issue protective orders and curtail its reporting authority. Among other things, governments would be empowered to determine how they were monitored by the commission, and could delay the publication of any reports by up to a year. Another proposal is driven by Ecuador, whose government has been a leading violator of press freedom among OAS countries. It would curtail the funding of the commission’s special rapporteur on press freedom and ban references to individual countries in its annual report.

It’s not surprising that Venezuela and its allies would push such noxious initiatives, or that Mr. Insulza would serve as their frontman. But Brazil’s embrace of the agenda should remind its neighbors of why they might still wish to preserve an organization that includes mature democracies such as Canada and the United States. Those countries and their democratic allies should work to ensure that the Insulza proposals are rejected — and that the OAS is preserved as an institution committed to democracy and human rights.