Inter-American Rights Body Suspends Hearings, Cuts Staff amid Financial Crisis

CIDH en crisis photo

Credit: Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

Citing a severe financial crisis, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) announced on May 23, 2016 that it is suspending regular sessions and scheduled country visits effective immediately, and is set to lose 40 percent of its personnel when their contracts expire in July. In announcing the imminent cuts, the IACHR stated that the current budget shortfall highlights an ongoing lack of adequate funding for the regional human rights body by the Member States of the Organization of American States (OAS), undermining its ability to monitor, protect, and promote human rights in the hemisphere. In recent days, civil society and United Nations experts have joined the Commission in urging States and potential donors to address the immediate crisis and calling upon Member States to develop and secure a sustainable budget for the IACHR. [IACHR Press Release; UN News Centre; CEJIL; openDemocracy] During a meeting on May 25th, the Permanent Council of the OAS heard from IACHR representatives on the financial crisis and the issue is expected to be discussed further during an upcoming OAS General Assembly session in June. [IntLawGrrls]

The Current Crisis

A budget deficit of approximately one million dollars has prompted the Commission to cancel its June and October sessions in addition to all planned State visits for 2016. [IACHR Press Release] Further, the financial hardship will force the Commission to allow the contracts of 40 percent of its personnel, meaning 30 members of a 78 person staff, to expire. The IACHR indicated that in order to avoid the staff cuts and suspension of certain activities, it will need funds or the promise of funds by June 15, 2016. [IACHR Press Release]

In its May 23rd announcement, the IACHR conveyed its distress that human rights victims will be left unprotected in the absence of a fully functioning regional human rights monitoring body. The Commission further asserted that the loss of staff would have a major impact on the teams that receive and process complaints, and would result in a massive backlog of petitions that would interfere with the fundamental right to access to justice. The Commission also expressed concern over the suspension of its regular sessions because its progress in examining and assessing complaints will be halted and those victims, petitioners, and civil society organizations scheduled to participate in upcoming events will be deprived the opportunity to engage in the Commission’s work. [IACHR Press Release]

At its regular meeting last week, the Permanent Council did not come to a consensus on an OAS response to the crisis. While some States expressed support and pledged funding, others indicated they had already contributed and told the IACHR to seek other donors. [IntLawGrrls; VICE] Government representatives wondered why the situation was only being brought to their attention at this late date and why there was not a plan in place to avoid it, questions echoed by some outside observers. [IntLawGrrls] However, others point to the growing political hostility towards the IACHR from the States under its supervision, including States that have in recent years withdrawn from aspects of the regional human rights system and threatened to significantly curb the Commission’s authority. [openDemocracy; IJRC]

Lack of Funding as an Ongoing Problem

In an article published the same day as the announcement, James Cavallaro, President of the Inter-American Commission, outlined that the current crisis represents and exacerbates the recurrent problem of gross underfunding of the Commission by OAS Member States. [El Pais (in Spanish)] Cavallaro recognizes a need for a reassessment of OAS countries’ human rights expenditures, highlighting the high contributions nations give to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and their respective national human rights institutions (NHRIs) in comparison to the meager funding received by the Inter-American Commission. He indicates that in 2015, OAS Member States contributed $13.7 million dollars to the International Criminal Court, a monitoring body not currently exercising jurisdiction over any cases involving OAS Member States, but only provided $200,000 dollars to the Inter-American Commission. [El Pais] The Commission also contrasted the Council of Europe’s decision to allocate 41.5 percent of its budget to the promotion and protection of human rights with the OAS, which designates a mere six percent of its budget to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. [IACHR Press Release]

Some academics argue that such a disproportionate lack of funding for the Inter-American Commission displays OAS Member States’ lack of political will to ensure effective functioning of the primary regional human rights body. Academics also opine that because some States may resent a monitoring body with the power to supervise and regulate government actions, depriving the Commission adequate funding may be an effort on the part of some nations to dilute the Commission’s capacities in order to avoid ever being under its scrutiny. [IAHRN]

In recent years the Commission has attempted to engage with Member States to address the pervasive problem of a lack of secure and consistent funding. While the efforts have resulted in a series of resolutions expressing States’ commitment to address the situation, the Commission has not received any significant increase in resources. [IACHR]

Background: Mandate and Role of the Commission

Formed in 1959, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights holds a mandate to monitor human rights conditions and violations in the 35 OAS Member States. The Commission carries out on-site visits to assess alleged violations and grants precautionary measures in urgent and serious situations. The Commission also receives and assesses complaints (“petitions”) from individuals, groups of individuals, and officially recognized non-governmental organizations concerning violations of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, American Convention on Human Rights, and other regional human rights treaties. [IJRC]

Since its inception, the Commission has had a major role in documenting, assessing, and creating novel responses to regional human rights violations, as well as providing technical assistance to Member States. The Commission serves as a vital international justice mechanism for victims of human rights abuses who seek and are denied justice in their home nations.

Even in light of persistent financial problems, the Commission has taken major actions to respond to human rights crises throughout the region. For instance, the Commission has published various reports on developing human rights crises, including a report on the deterioration of the rights situation in Mexico and a report on the human rights situation of prisoners at the US Naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Commission has also facilitated investigations into reports of grave human rights abuses in the region, such as through the formation of an Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts who investigated and reported on the disappearance of 43 students from the Mexican state of Guerrero in September 2014.

Additional Information

To stay updated on developments on this topic, refer to the IACHR website and Twitter page or follow the hashtag, #CIDHenCrisis. Readers can also follow the upcoming General Assembly session via the session webpage. For more information on the Inter-American Human Rights System, visit the IJRC Online Resource Hub.