The conclusion of the 42nd General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Cochabamba, Bolivia, reflected a complex scenario for the Inter-American System of Human Rights (IAS), and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in particular. During the summit, reasoned critiques and calls for necessary reforms were juxtaposed with the positions of some regional leaders who oppose the existence of a supranational oversight structure. The Assembly exposed a risky situation for the future of the most valuable regional protection tool available to the continent’s populations.
Although this meeting did not achieve the necessary consensus for member-states to directly impose changes upon the working tools of the IACHR—e.g., the application of precautionary measures, the structure and content of its annual report, and the work of its Special Rapporteurs, among others—the latent possibility exists that a resolution of this sort could be passed in the future.
The Assembly concluded that the Permanent Council of the OAS should formulate various proposals for implementing reforms— “in dialogue with all involved parties”— in time for the next Special Session of the General Assembly. If member-states fail to recognize that the Commission itself should head this process and instead yield to the temptation to make these decisions themselves, they will be undermining the System’s autonomy and limiting its powers in crucial matters concerning the protection of fundamental rights. The peoples of the Americas will then face an adverse human rights scenario.
Despite some well-deserved criticisms of the OAS vis-à-vis the current political climate, there is no doubt that over the last half-century, member-states and societies of the region have built a human rights protection system that has achieved important milestones for Latin American countries and, most importantly, their peoples. The System proved to be fundamental during periods of state terrorism and during transitions. Most recently, the System has played an important role in the consolidation of democratic institutions and in helping obtain reparations for victims of historical or structural discrimination.
In the Argentine case, it is undeniable that the Inter-American Commission’s 1979 visit and its subsequent report were a point of inflexion vis-à-vis the egregious crimes against humanity that characterized the period. Years later, the IACHR ruled that the Ley de Obediencia Debida and the Ley de Punto Final (Argentine impunity laws that granted amnesty for human rights abuses committed during military rule) were incompatible with the American Convention on Human Rights. This decision was an essential precedent for the 2005 Argentine Supreme Court ruling that declared the unconstitutionality of the impunity laws, which in turn led to the reopening of trials dealing with state terrorism.
In recent years, the passing of a new military code of conduct and a new migration law, both of which respect international human rights standards, are undeniably related to the work of the Commission. In the same vein, the decriminalization of offenses such as contempt, libel, and slander for expressions of public interest have been possible in the wake of cases presented to the Inter-American System.
To avoid disregarding this history, and to provide a contrast to what occurred at the most recent General Assembly, Argentina must resume the leadership position that it has historically played in defending the Inter-American System (particularly the Commission) since the return to democracy in the 1980s.Taking such as position would do much to help maintain Argentina’s status as a regional and international reference point in the field of human rights.
When Argentina joins in with other countries whose current objectives do not necessarily include a commitment to the genuine strengthening of the Inter-American Commission, it not only jeopardizes its leadership role, it also dishonors the important legacy of the IACHR in the country’s recent history. For these reasons, Argentina should adopt an unequivocal position on the Permanent Council that proposes strengthening the capabilities of the Commission and preserving its autonomy as the principal mechanism for the protection of human rights of the region´s inhabitants.