–Javier Couso, Universidad Diego Portales, Chile
A few weeks ago, on September 6th, the government of Venezuela denounced the American Convention on Human Rights. According to the procedure set by Article 78.1 of the latter, within a year of this official notification Venezuela will no longer be part of this treaty, and thus no longer accept jurisdiction by the Inter-American Human Rights System. This action by Chavez’s government, although expected –since it had been announced a few months ago— is highly significant, since it represents the end of an era of generalized consensus in the region over the virtues of international human rights law and courts.
Indeed, ever since the ‘third wave of democracy’ reached Latin America (towards the end of the 1980s) there had been a vast consensus on the need to have a regional human rights system aimed at supervising the effective respect of rights in each of the countries of the region, after a long period of systematic violations perpetrated by the wave of military regimes that swept Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s.
Thus, with the notorious exception of Cuba, Latin American states abandoned their decades-old adherence to the principle “of non-interference in the internal affairs of other nations”, embracing instead the concept of internationally-enforced human rights. Within this context, the Inter-American Human Rights System (comprised of a Commission and a Court) started to play an important role, first dealing with past human rights violation perpetrated by the deposed military regimes and, then with an increasingly more diversified set of human rights violations perpetrated by democratically-elected governments. Thus, in recent years the Inter-American Human Rights Court has condemned a variety of states of the region for infringements on freedom of expression and information; discrimination against minorities; violation of indigenous rights; and other first and second generation human rights.
With a very limited budget (less than 2 million US $ per year) the Inter-American System was able to developed an interesting jurisprudence on human rights protection and gradually became a relevant actor in Latin American politics, developing procedural mechanisms for addressing the new issues it is now dealing with and gaining a public visibility within the region’s population that gave it an important degree of legitimacy as a kind of ‘courts of last resort’ for the protection of minorities and individuals whose rights were left unprotected by domestic courts. Furthermore, its jurisprudence has increasingly influenced that of high courts in many Latin American countries, as well as inspired the creation of non-governmental organizations specialized in litigating before the Inter-American Human Rights System.
Aside from the previously mentioned impact of this regional human rights system, it played a crucial role in promoting the liberal-constitutional values typically associated with international human rights law among Latin Americans, as well a serving as a check on the power of those governments that effectively control the domestic judiciary.
Given the current role and potential contribution of the Inter-American Human Rights System, Venezuela’s decision to withdraw from it cannot be taken lightly. In fact, as stated above, it represents the end of a generalized consensus in Latin America over the values of liberal-democracy and international human rights protection, since in its denunciation of the Convention Venezuela not only attacked the Inter-American System of political bias against Chavez’s regime, but resuscitated the principle of “non-interference” with the internal affairs of other nations and that of “self-determination” of sovereign states, doctrines that in the past served authoritarian regimes to prevent international criticism of gross human rights violations.
Of course, the damage to the Inter-American Human Rights System will be circumscribed if Venezuela’s decision is not followed by other states of the region that have also criticized the former, such as Bolivia and Ecuador, but it already signals an ideological split in the region regarding conceptions of the relationship between national sovereignty and international human rights protection. This cleavage parallels that of Latin American states that still adhere to liberal conceptions of democracy and those that adhere to radical understandings of it, which is precisely the case of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador.
The official letter by Venezuela’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nicolás Maduro, to the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), José Miguel Insulza, can be seen in the following link:
President Evo Morales accused the Inter-American Human Rights System of having a bias against Latin American governments “who do not share the policies of the United States”, in a speech delivered at the 42d General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS), June 4, 2012 (in Cochabamba, Bolivia). See link: http://www.lostiempos.com/diario/actualidad/nacional/20120603/discurso-del-presidente-de-bolivia-evo-morales–inauguracion-de-la-42_173723_365818.html . In the same venue, President Rafael Correa, of Ecuador, issued a similar criticism, stating that: “The Inter-American Human Rights Commission had a historical role during the military dictatorships in Latin America but, now that our nations are governed by democrats, they are treated worse than the dictatorial regimes”. He also declared that it was an “aberration” that the headquarters of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission are in Washington. See the coverage of Correa’s discourse delivered at the 42d General Assembly of OAS, in June 4, 2012 by ‘El Universo’:http://www.eluniverso.com/2012/06/04/1/1355/rafael-critica-cidh-prensa-ongs.html