After a severe financial crisis threatened to effectively shut down major operations at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) this year, the IACHR recently announced that the immediate crisis is now over. Many States and other entities have agreed to donate funds, allowing the IACHR to salvage its budget and continue operating. Because the IACHR has overcome the crisis, it will be able to hold its second period of sessions for the year, in Panama City from November 29, 2016 to December 7, 2016. [IACHR Press Release: Panama] It will also avoid laying off staff, nearly half of whom were at risk of losing their positions. [IACHR Press Release: Crisis]
While the IACHR expressed its gratitude to donors and its relief at avoiding disaster, it emphasized that its overall financial health remains precarious and States must do more to fund its effective functioning. To that end, the IACHR and its judicial counterpart, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR), have drafted a joint budget proposal for 2017. The Extraordinary General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) will review the proposal and adopt the OAS budget on October 31. [IACHR Press Release: Overcome; IACHR Press Release: Proposal]
Financial Crisis of 2016
On May 23, 2016, the Commission announced that due to a lack of funding, it would be suspending its regular sessions and upcoming country visits, and would allow the contracts of 40 percent of its personnel to expire unless it received the requisite funds to continue running as planned, or the promise thereof. In its announcement, the IACHR placed the financial crisis of this year in the context of a “systemic lack of funds” for the IACHR. The OAS, the IACHR pointed out, funds only 31 staff members, leaving 47 people at the IACHR without a stable source of funds. [IACHR Press Release: Crisis]
The Commission had previously been funded, in part, by donations from the European Union and several European States, but the recent influx of refugees into Europe created a shift in the financial priorities of those States, causing donations to drop drastically. Nevertheless, IACHR President James Cavallaro did not place blame with the Commission’s usual donors, instead lamenting the meager donations from OAS Member States in Latin America and the Caribbean. [El País (in Spanish only)] In recent years, the Commission attempted to resolve its financial problems by engaging OAS Member States. Those efforts led to a number of resolutions conveying States’ commitment to remedy the problem, but as of May 2016, generated no substantial increase in funding. [IACHR Press Release: Crisis]
During its financial crisis, the Inter-American System received an outpouring of support and calls to action from international bodies and civil society organizations. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights reaffirmed its support for the Commission in a May 2016 press briefing, during which its spokesperson lauded the Commission’s provision of “vital recourse for victims of human rights violations” and “urge[d] States to reaffirm their commitment to human rights by providing…the required resources.” In June 2016, Human Rights Watch also made a show of support for the Commission by encouraging others to help end the financial crisis that “threaten[ed] justice.”
The Commission announced on September 30 that it had overcome its 2016 financial crisis due to the contributions of OAS Member States and others around the world. Notably, the Commission will receive a combined annual total of $860,800 from Argentina, Chile, Panama, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, and Antigua and Barbuda. Together with donations from the European Commission, Denmark, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the Arcus Foundation, Cammina, the United Nations Agency for Refugees, and the Universities of Notre Dame and Stanford, these contributions will match the annual donation of the United States, which in 2016 was $2,483,100. [IACHR Press Release: Overcome]
IACHR, IACtHR Joint Proposal
Although the immediate threat to the financial sustainability of the IACHR has been addressed, neither the Commission nor the Court has a sustainable long-term funding plan. Referring to the end of the financial crisis, Executive Secretary of the Commission Paulo Abrão explained, “This does not mean we have solved the severe structural issues of a deficient funding, which still requires a determined action from the States.” [IACHR Press Release: Overcome] Echoing those sentiments, Judge Roberto Caldas, President of the Court, conveyed his hope that States continue to make financial contributions in order to “guarantee the financial sustainability of the regional system of human rights that they created, for the benefit of every person that inhabits our region.” [IACHR Press Release: Proposal]
On October 4, the Commission and the Court announced a joint proposal for the allocation of funds in the annual budget of the Inter-American System. The goal was to create a budget with a predictable level of available resources that could sustain both organs and improve their capacity to plan, manage, and comply with their mandates. [IACHR Press Release: Proposal]
The proposal, which was presented to the Secretary General of the OAS, Luis Almagro, on September 30, calls for the following distribution: $11,228,250 to the Commission and $6,976,200 to the Court. The amount of funding requested in excess of the donated amount is to be provided by the OAS. The proposal will be considered as one part of the 2017 budget for the OAS, which is set to be approved by the Extraordinary General Assembly on October 31. [IACHR Press Release: Proposal] Addressing the proposal, President Cavallaro said that it “does not cover what the financing of the organs should be in an ideal situation,” but that its approval “would mean a very significant step, as it would prevent another financial crisis next year.” [IACHR Press Release: Proposal]
Background on the Inter-American Human Rights System
The Inter-American human rights system is charged with monitoring and enforcing human rights obligations in the 35 independent American countries that compose the Organization of American States. The Inter-American System consists of two organs: the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The Commission is headquartered in Washington, D.C., and the Court is based in San Jose, Costa Rica. IJRC, Inter-American System.
The Commission holds thematic hearings on specific areas of concern, conducts country visits to observe human rights conditions, and publishes reports on its findings. The Commission also processes specific complaints of human rights violations by reviewing “petitions,” which can be submitted by individuals, groups of individuals, or non-governmental organizations recognized in any OAS Member State. Petitions must allege at least one violation of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, the American Convention on Human Rights, or a number of other regional human rights treaties.
The Court is the judicial body of the Inter-American human rights system. In addition to issuing advisory opinions, the Court decides specific cases referred to it by the Commission. However, the Court may only decide cases brought against OAS Member States that have consented to the Court’s jurisdiction. The Court currently has jurisdiction over 20 States.
To view a collection of statements made in support of the Inter-American System during its financial crisis, visit the OAS website. To learn about the Commission’s past or upcoming sessions, refer to its calendar.