Organizations and journalists closely follow proposed reforms to the OAS's Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression

Non-profit organizations and leaders from 15 media organizations in Latin America participated in a meeting to express their concern about a series of proposals that would weaken the Inter-American Human Rights System, including one targeting the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression. The meeting took place on Monday, Feb. 25, and was organized by the Council of the Americas in Washington, D.C., according to the newspaper El Universal.

Participating organizations met with ambassadors from Mexico, Peru, Chile, the United States and Brazil in anticipation of a meeting organized by the government of Ecuador set to take place on Friday, March 8, preceding the General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) on March 22. "Human rights activists wanted to know more about the meeting's agenda because there is concern they will make a deal that will be approved on March 22, explained Luis Botello, director of special projects for the International Center for Journalists.

Ambassadors at the event appeared receptive. In particular, the Mexican ambassador promised he would request more funds for the Inter-American Court and Commission on Human Rights.

Besides human rights defenders, "the media and citizen journalists in Latin America are going to be very active following any proposals that could affect freedom of expression," Botello said.

At the March 22 assembly, the OAS will vote on a series of proposed reforms to the Inter-American Human Rights System that could weaken the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

In 2012, a group of countries led by Ecuador and Venezuela proposed reforms to IACHR that would affect the body's mission and the powers of its special rapporteurs. While the proposals claimed to strengthen transparency and the legal rigor of the inter-American human rights system, several organizations and representatives from civil society have argued that the reforms would weaken the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, which receives more funding than other units, and prohibit it from publishing a separate annual report.

Ecuador and Venezuela's recommendations suggest the IACHR's rapporteurships should receive equal funding. Currently, the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression receives three times the resources as all other rapporteurships. The reforms would also reduce the rapporteur's funding and prohibit it from seeking external funding. Additionally, the reforms propose a code of conduct that would impede the publication of its press releases and recommend its annual report be brief and refer to the entire region, not individual countries.

"The Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression is a fundamental role of the Inter-American Commission's work to consolidate and fortify democratic systems in the region," said lawyer Ariel Dulitzky, director of the Human Rights Clinic at the University of Texas at Austin and former Assistant Executive Secretary of the IACHR. Now, "the Commission has to explain why it's necessary to have a special rapporteur and why other rapporteurships do not merit special rapporteurs nor separate volumes in their report."

Dulitzky, also a member of the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, sees several motivations behind Ecuador and Venezuela's recommendations. For example, statements from the IACHR and its rapporteur, which report on problems and restrictions on freedom of expression in the Western Hemisphere, have repeatedly criticized the governments of Ecuador and Venezuela for their actions, both internationally and within their borders.

Financing the IACHR has become a forum for disputes between Ecuador and Venezuela on one side, and the United States on another, which is a major funder of the Commission.

In Botello's opinion, the debate over financing the IACHR should revolve around how to increase funding from member states and other foundations that support the Commission's other rapporteurships. "It's a blessing that foundations or governments are interested in strengthening freedom of expression in the Americas," Botello said.

Dulitzky noted that during the next assembly, the OAS should increase the IACHR's budget. "If the Commission is one of the four pillars of the OAS, it should have 25 percent of the budget and this is not even the case with 10 percent, without addressing the need to solicit outside funds," he explained in an interview with the Knight Center.

Dulitzky also suggested that the IACHR should create strategic alliances and reach out to important social actors at the national level, including legislators in each country, judges, actors in the academic and legal world, and other national organizations. Botello added that human rights defenders have also proposed greater consistency and rigor in the opinions published by the IACHR.

In response to the proposed reforms, the Commission presented a self-analysis and recommendations to strengthen the Inter-American Human Rights System.

Update 05/03/2013: Dulitzky requested the Knight Center revise this post to better reflect his opinions on this matter. The interview with him was extended and the post has been updated with new information.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.

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