January 19, 2012 - Updated on January 20, 2016

OAS: Special rapporteur for freedom of expression is not a political plaything

Will the Inter-American human rights system survive beyond January 25? This is one of the decisions that will be put to the meeting of ambassadors to the Permanent Council of the Organization of Americans States on that day. Far from being a organizational tweak, the proposed overhaul of the way the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) functions would ratify a disgraceful political offensive by certain member states against one of its components, an important mechanism in the defense of civil liberties in the western hemisphere – the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression. “We need a new Inter-American system because the OAS has been captured by a US vision that makes it ineffective and unworthy of confidence,” Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, promoter of the reform, said recently. Really? Since When? In any case, his comment underscores the forthcoming decision’s political dimension. Drafted by an OAS working group on June 29, 2011 at the request of the member states concerned, the proposed reform consists of three apparently inoffensive points. Only apparently. 1- A single annual IACHR report would henceforth combine all the reports of the special rapporteurs. As things stand, the special rapporteur for freedom of expression is the only one to produce his own separate report, which is more than 300 pages long and examines the situation in each country in detail. 2- “Adequate, sufficient and balanced” resources would be assigned to each rapporteur, working group and IACHR unit. Again, as things stand, the special rapporteur for freedom of expression is the only one who is not financed directly from the OAS budget, the only one who has the power to raise his own funds, which are currently greater that the funds assigned to the other rapporteurs and units. 3- A code of conduct would be applied to the special rapporteurs on the grounds of facilitating coordination with member states, even if it restricts their ability to issue statements about ongoing cases. Visibility, financing and independence. All vitals pillar for this institution, pillars which this reform is trying to topple one by one. Claims that these recommendations are solely designed to rationalize the way the IACHR operates do not bear analysis. The first point would imply that the special rapporteur for freedom of expression’s current detailed annual report is at best pointless if not inappropriate. Would a detailed, well-argued annual report be less useful than a terse summary of the state of freedom of information at the hemispheric level, one taking no account of the significant variations from country to country? A summary that is moreover buried in an overall synthesis that is the result of negotiations among the seven different special rapporteurs? The alternative method would not favor the complete and transparent information that public opinion is calling for. The first point’s unseemly nature only serves to highlight the second one’s perversity. By raising his own funding, the special rapporteur for freedom of expression is able to cover the cost of producing his annual report, along with other costs. The report poses a problem? Let’s eliminate the funding! The member states will pay what they can afford, and a portion of that, probably the smallest portion, will be assigned to the troublesome special rapporteur, who will be too poor to carry out field visits or organize hearings at which government officials are questioned by members of the public and NGOs. Is that the aim? Yes, if you consider the third point, in which a “code of conduct” – an IACHR regulation already being in force – is turned in a screen for imposing complete censorship. A rapporteur, even a penniless one, can still issued statements or recommendations to member states in the event of glaring violations of fundamental freedoms. Even if he has been weakened, he can still speak. So let’s silence him altogether! If these three proposals or even just one of them (especially one of the second two) are adopted on January 25, the most recently created of the OAS special rapporteurs will be the first to go. He will be sacrificed after 15 years to the caprices of governments that are unable to distinguish criticism from conspiracy, an ideological position from the rule of law. Because this is what it is really about. The special rapporteur’s tacit neutralization would not be the result of chance. The initiative has come from a government that was dismayed to find itself the target of unanimous criticism abroad when it reacted in the worse possible way to often unfair and extreme attacks from its leading newspapers. Ordering a newspaper to pay an exorbitant fine and sentencing its representatives to jail terms encouraged self-censorship and flouted Inter-American jurisprudence. The special rapporteur just acted as a guarantor of hemispheric law when he called for the decriminalization of media offences in Ecuador. And elsewhere. He was also just doing his job when he reminded the government that its right to defend its reputation was a right that also applies to the journalists, civil society representatives and NGOs that are often branded as enemies and insulted at length in official broadcasts. In Ecuador and elsewhere. The polarization under way in several countries in the region did not have to extend to Inter-American bodies. Ecuador’s proposals would facilitate concealment of the situation in other countries where professional journalists, community journalists, human rights activists or ordinary Internet users end up paying for their courage with their lives. In Mexico, for example, which has been devastated for the past five years by a federal offensive against drug trafficking, or Honduras, which is being eaten away by the violence stemming from the June 2009 coup d’état. When national sovereignty is turned into a dogma, it is not easily reconciled with civil society vigilance that now extends across borders and requires international interlocutors. The OAS Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression is needed more than ever. By keeping it in its current form, the OAS member states will show they do not fear an internationally-connected and adult civil society. Olivier Basille, Managing Director of Reporters Without Borders
Maria Pía Matta, President of AMARC-International
Benoît Hervieu, Americas Desk of Reporters Without Borders