IACHR’s Independence, Working Conditions Contested as OAS Blocks Executive Secretary’s Re-Appointment

IACHR Executive Secretary (center) during visit to Chile in November 2019.
IACHR Executive Secretary (center) during visit to Chile
Credit: IACHR via Flickr

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary General are engaged in an unprecedented struggle that implicates the independence and autonomy of the Americas’ principal human rights body, and also exposes concerns over working conditions for its staff. OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro is refusing to approve the IACHR’s choice of Executive Secretary, declining to renew Paulo Abrão’s contract and citing to numerous staff complaints of harassment and a toxic work environment at the IACHR. Secretary General Luis Almagro informed the IACHR of his decision on the day Abrão’s contract expired – more than seven months after the IACHR chose Abrão for a second four-year term. [IACHR Press Release: Autonomy] Many human rights organizations have urged the OAS to immediately approve Abrão’s reappointment, in order to preserve the IACHR’s independence and stability. Some observers have also called on the IACHR and OAS to appropriately address staff complaints, with transparency and while respecting due process. Since their public statements in the last week of August, neither the IACHR nor the OAS Secretary General has provided any additional information to the public on the status of the IACHR Executive Secretary’s position or the complaints against him.


In January 2020, the IACHR Commissioners voted unanimously to name Paulo Abrão to a second four-year term as Executive Secretary. [IACHR Press Release: Mandate Renewal] The IACHR announced this decision in a press release, and notified the OAS Secretary General. [IACHR Press Release: Autonomy

On August 10, 2020, the OAS Ombudsperson privately shared her report with the IACHR on staff complaints made in 2019 concerning the IACHR Executive Secretary.  [IACHR Press Release: Dialogue

On August 15, 2020, Paulo Abrão’s contract was set to expire. That same day, the OAS Secretary General privately notified the IACHR that he would not be “moving ahead with the process of appointing the Executive Secretary.” [IACHR Press Release: Autonomy

The first public notice of this dispute came from the IACHR, in its August 25 press release “condemn[ing] a serious attack on its autonomy and independence.” [IACHR Press Release: Autonomy] The IACHR stated that Almagro had not consulted it before making his decision, and had not previously raised any doubts about whether Abrão would be reappointed. [IACHR Press Release: Autonomy

The OAS Secretary General responded in a press statement, also on August 25, blaming his decision on the “dozens” of complaints by IACHR staff. [OAS Press Release: Designation] He characterized the IACHR’s statement as “unethical and reprehensible,” and accused the IACHR of “unilaterally” interrupting the dialogue on this issue. [OAS Press Release: Designation]

On August 28, the Secretary General issued a heated statement in response to what he described as a “disinformation campaign.” [OAS Press Release: IACHR Autonomy] He emphasized the IACHR’s authority to choose its own Executive Secretary, but unequivocally refused to “incorporate or reincorporate an individual facing 61 pending accusations.” Although Almagro did not mention Paulo Abrão by name, the statement is clearly about him. Almagro criticized the IACHR as “unambiguously corporatist and defending the indefensible” and called out the UN human rights office and prominent human rights organizations by name, accusing them of ignoring workers’ rights. [OAS Press Release: IACHR Autonomy

On August 30, the IACHR responded, welcoming the Secretary General’s statement as recognizing the IACHR’s authority to select its own Executive Secretary. [IACHR Press Release: Dialogue] It emphasized the need for: 1) recognition of the IACHR’s independence and autonomy; 2) respect for the rights of OAS staff, including within the IACHR Executive Secretariat, and effective investigation of their complaints; 3) due process in handling complaints against the Executive Secretary. It described itself as having acted immediately and responsibly when it became aware of staff complaints, although the press release does not provide much clarity on the timing and nature of its response. [IACHR Press Release: Dialogue

To date, neither office has identified the next steps in the appointment of an IACHR Executive Secretary, clarified which official(s) are carrying out the Executive Secretary’s duties in the interim, or explained what the pending complaints allege, how they will be handled, and whether their outcome could affect the employment (or employment eligibility) for IACHR Executive Secretariat personnel (including any Executive Secretary candidates).

Appointment Process for IACHR Executive Secretary

The IACHR and OAS General Secretariat are each principal, autonomous organs of the OAS. See OAS Charter, art. 53. However, as the administrative center for the OAS, the General Secretariat and its head, the Secretary General, play an important role across the organization, including in personnel matters. The IACHR Statute indicates its Executive Secretary “shall be appointed by the Secretary General of the [OAS], in consultation with the Commission.” See IACHR Statute, art. 21. (The OAS Secretary General, in contrast, is chosen by governments.) The Executive Secretary has the power to “direct, plan, and coordinate” the work of the Executive Secretariat and to draft the IACHR budget and programs of work for sessions. See IACHR Rules of Procedure, art. 12. The OAS Secretary General may remove the Executive Secretary, after consulting with the IACHR and informing it of the reasons for that decision. See IACHR Statute, art. 21.

In 2011, the IACHR adopted changes to its Rules of Procedure to more clearly describe its role in choosing its own Executive Secretary. [IACHR Press Release: Article 11] In that time period, then-OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza was reportedly pressuring then-Executive Secretary Santiago Canton to leave his post, for political reasons. [La Información; El Universo] The IACHR’s independence and stability were also being threatened by governments pushing “reforms,” including with regard to the appointment of the Executive Secretary. [IJRC: Reform Process] In its most recent revision to the Rules of Procedure, adopted in 2013, the IACHR kept the 2011 additions on the selection of the Executive Secretary. See IACHR, Resolution 1/2013: Reform of the Rules of Procedure, Policies and Practices (March 18, 2013).

The current Rules require the IACHR to identify “the best qualified candidate” for Executive Secretary. See IACHR Rules of Procedure, art. 11(3). Its process involves an extensive search and evaluation of candidates, with the input of civil society. The Commission and civil society generally consider the IACHR’s power to choose its own Executive Secretary to be an integral part of its independence from the region’s governments and its autonomy as a principal organ of the OAS. In practice, the OAS Secretary General’s role in appointing the Executive Secretary has been an administrative formality. 

Beyond allowing an Executive Secretary to serve two terms, the IACHR Rules do not create a specific process for renewing the Executive Secretary’s mandate. See IACHR Rules of Procedure, art. 11.

Threat to IACHR Autonomy

Hundreds of nongovernmental organizations, 13 former Commissioners, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), members of academia, and several governments (including Mexico and Argentina) have called on the OAS Secretary General to respect the IACHR’s choice of Executive Secretary, arguing that Almagro’s actions undermine the independence, autonomy, and stability of the region’s human rights oversight body. UN High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet said the impasse risked “undermining the independence and proven effectiveness of the IACHR” and was “causing damage to the reputation of the OAS.” [OHCHR Press Release

Many of the statements also called on Almagro to not use staff complaints as an excuse to unilaterally override the IACHR’s decision and urged both institutions to fairly and transparently resolve those complaints, independent from the process to appoint the Executive Secretary. [CEJIL

Staff Complaints

The substance of the complaints is not clear from either institution’s statements, but news reports based on interviews with staff and officials indicate they include allegations of sexual harassment, hiring irregularities, retaliation, discrimination, and a toxic work environment. [El País; Infobae] The OAS Staff Association issued a statement in support of IACHR staff, attesting to the “many complaints of harassment” presented by IACHR staff and consultants to the Secretary General and Ombudsperson. [OEA Asociación del Personal] At least two new Twitter accounts emerged in August to draw attention to staff complaints, including CIDH Transparente and NoMeVanACorrer.

OAS Secretary General Almagro cited 61 complaints by IACHR staff as the reason for not renewing Abrão’s mandate. [OAS Press Release: IACHR Autonomy] Given the ambiguous wording of the Secretary General’s statements, reporters took this to mean 61 current and former IACHR staff members had filed complaints against Abrão. [El País] In its press release, the IACHR generally disputed the Secretary General’s characterization of the complaints, without clarifying. [IACHR Press Release: Dialogue] However, IACHR President Joel Hernández stated in an interview that there were not 61 complaints, but rather 61 visits by staff to the Ombudsperson to discuss general working conditions. [Télam] [Although the staff list and organigram are outdated on the IACHR website, annual reports indicate that the Executive Secretariat typically employs approximately 130 people, including many consultants. See, e.g., IACHR, Annual Report 2019: Chapter IV: Institutional Development (2019).]

With regard to the handling of staff concerns, the Secretary General accused the IACHR of not forwarding complaints to the OAS Office of Inspector General; the IACHR said it had forwarded them to the Secretary General, who is authorized to submit them to the Inspector General. In each of the press releases, the phrasing can make it difficult to understand what exactly happened. [OAS Press Release: IACHR Autonomy; IACHR Press Release: Dialogue

Separately, news media have reported that the Ombudsperson contacted IACHR staff asking them to allow her to publicly share their allegations against Abrão. [AP] Staff have reported feeling pressured to both publicly criticize and publicly support Abrão. [AP

It is worth noting in this context that the IACHR Commissioners are not based at the IACHR headquarters and generally convene in person for sessions several times per year at the headquarters or elsewhere. They are, though, in very frequent contact with Executive Secretariat staff, who coordinate and prepare their activities, research and draft reports and decisions, and communicate with parties, among other responsibilities. See IACHR Rules of Procedure, art. 13.

In their latest statements to the press – more than a week ago – both the IACHR President and OAS Secretary General have said they do not accept the other’s decision regarding the Executive Secretary. [Deutsche Welle; DW Español] It remains unclear how, or when, the impasse will be resolved.

Additional Information

For more information on the Inter-American Human Rights System, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub. To stay up-to-date on international human rights news, visit IJRC’s News Room or subscribe to the IJRC Daily.