Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Names Paulo Abrão Executive Secretary

Emilio Álvarez Icaza Longoria, Executive Secretary of the IACHR from August 2012 to August 2016
Credit: Daniel Cima

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has chosen Brazilian law professor Paulo Abrão as its tenth Executive Secretary. Abrão’s term will last from August 2016 through August 2020 and may be renewed once for another four years. [IACHR Press Release: Abrão] As Executive Secretary, he will head the Executive Secretariat of the IACHR, which is composed of several staff members and is in charge of processing petitions and cases. See IJRC, Advocacy before the Inter-American System: A Manual for Attorneys and Advocates (2012). Abrão’s powers and duties will include consulting with the President to create the IACHR’s draft program budget, advising the President and other IACHR members on completing their obligations, and reporting to the IACHR on the Executive Secretariat’s undertakings. See IACHR, Announcement. Abrão will replace former Executive Secretary Emilio Álvarez Icaza Longoria, who served from August 2012 through August 2016 and announced his decision (Spanish) not to run for reelection last January. [IACHR Press Release: Abrão]

Selection Process

As required under Article 11 of the IACHR Rules of Procedure, the IACHR opened on February 9, 2016 the public competition for the position of Executive Secretary. [IACHR Press Release: Abrão] According to the vacancy announcement for the position, candidates must be nationals of an OAS Member State, have a university-level educational background in law or a relevant social science field, and have at least fifteen years of domestic and international work experience.

The IACHR selected five final candidates out of 90 applications based on the criteria stated in Article 11 of the Rules of Procedure, which requires that the Executive Secretary be a “person of independence and high moral standing, with experience and recognized expertise in the field of human rights.” In April, the IACHR published each of their resumes and cover letters on its website. After announcing its finalists, the IACHR spent a month accepting 163 comments and observations from the public concerning each of the five finalists. [IACHR Press Release: Comments] The five candidates participated in a public roundtable in which each candidate was interviewed for the position. [IACHR Press Release: Abrão] Taking into consideration the interviews, resumes, other application materials of the candidates, and the submitted comments, the IACHR made the final decision on one candidate, Abrão, to refer to the Secretary General of the Organization of the American States, who, according to Article 11 of the Rules of Procedure, must confirm and appoint the Executive Secretary. [IACHR Press Release: Abrão]


Abrão’s final competitors were Renzo Pomi, a Uruguayan lawyer; Michael Reed-Hurtado, a Colombian journalist and lawyer; Lisa Shoman, a former senator and minister of Belize; and Elizabeth Abi-Mershed, an American lawyer and current Deputy Executive Secretary of the IACHR. The Open Society Foundations hosted a roundtable for four out of the five finalists to discuss his or her vision for the role of Executive Secretary as well as what he or she perceived to be major challenges currently facing the IACHR. A major topic of discussion was the ongoing financial crisis that has forced the IACHR to suspend hearings and announce a plan to terminate nearly half of its staff. The video of the roundtable can be viewed online.

Michael Reed-Hurtado focused on the danger that the financial crisis poses to the IACHR’s credibility, stating that diagnostic evaluations and planning are valuable tools with which to combat the crisis and prevent the IACHR from being viewed as a weakened institution. He also expressed a desire to make the IACHR a more accountable body with transparent decision making processes.

Renzo Pomi also focused on the issue of funding. He stressed the importance of securing permanent funding for some basic tasks of the IACHR in order to prevent instability in the Commission’s work. He explained that certain aspects of the IACHR’s activities, such as protection and precautionary measures, must be funded on a regular basis. He argued that reliable funding would contribute to resolving the persistent problems of backlog and delay in processing petitions, and he emphasized the significance of seeking and maintaining support from civil society and users of the Inter-American System of Human Rights.

Elizabeth Abi-Mershed discussed a variety of issues from persistent discrimination, inequality, and violence in the hemisphere – particularly against groups that have historically been discriminated against – to funding and access to information. She identified a major role of the Executive Secretary position as safeguarding the independence and autonomy of the IACHR in its work, transparency, and legitimacy. She described her desire to develop a clear funding plan that included a use of annual donor conferences to increase comprehensive rather than project-specific funding. She also stressed the need to enhance informational access, naming the currently insufficient search mechanisms on the IACHR’s webpage as a void that should be filled.

Finally, Paulo Abrão focused on the need to continue building partnerships and alliances in order to strengthen the international human rights community, identifying those partnerships as necessary for the continued independence and autonomy of the IACHR. He also emphasized the importance of keeping the dialogue focused on the victims of human rights abuses. Abrão went on to discuss a need for more educational facilities geared toward human rights and a need for greater technical support for the development of human rights policies. In developing a strategic plan for the IACHR, he suggested that the Commission follow and build upon initiatives that the previous Executive Secretary and the Assistant Executive Secretary had already been developing to address the financial crisis.

Paulo Abrão: Educational and Professional Background

Abrão will assume the Executive Secretary position with an already extensive educational and professional background. He holds both a masters and doctorate degree in law, as well as a postgraduate degree in human rights and democratization processes. See OAS, Short Resume: Paulo Abrão. In addition to working as a law professor in both Brazil and Spain, he serves as Chairman of Brazil’s Amnesty Commission and as Executive Secretary of the Institute for Public Policies on Human Rights. Previously, he held positions as Brazil’s Secretary of Justice, Chairman of the National Committee for Refugees, and Chairman of the National Committee against Human Trafficking. [IACHR Press Release: Abrão] His curriculum vitae has been made viewable to the public on the IACHR website.

Additional Information

Created in 1959 by the Organization of American States after the adoption of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man in 1948, the IACHR is the oldest regional organization in the world. IACHR, What is the IACHR. Composed of seven independent commissioners who do not represent their countries in any official capacity, the IACHR monitors and protects human rights conditions in the Americas. It conducts on-site visits, hears cases of alleged human rights violations, and publishes both thematic and annual reports. See IJRC, Advocacy before the Inter-American System: A Manual for Attorneys and Advocates, 7.

For more information about the IACHR’s mandate and functions, the IACHR’s composition, and a list of former IACHR Executive Secretaries, visit the IACHR website.

To learn about the Inter-American Human Rights System, including the IACHR, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR), and the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights (IIDH), visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.