Interview: Why the OAS Faces a Credibility Test over its Human Rights Commission

The Organization of American States (OAS) will hold its 49th General Assembly in Medellin, Colombia this week. Member States are poised to select four new members of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the regional body tasked with monitoring and protecting human rights in the Americas. A new report by an independent panel of experts recently found that only three of five candidates are qualified to fill four vacancies on the Commission. This has created an unprecedented situation: there are more seats available to fill at the Commission than there are qualified candidates.

Liliana Gamboa, an advocacy officer at the Open Society Justice Initiative, spoke with panelist Professor Judith Schönsteiner from Universidad Diego Portales in Chile about the report’s findings.

Why were some candidates considered unqualified to serve as IACHR commissioners?

The independent panel of experts used the criteria set out in the American Convention on Human Rights, and interpreted them in the light of the Bangalore Principles, which are commonly accepted standards in the area of impartiality and independence. These criteria are "recognized competence in the field of human rights" and "high moral character." The Panel considered that a commissioner needs to be independent and knowledgeable in the area of international human rights law, both measured in the eyes of a reasonable, objective observer. These are the same criteria that previous independent panels used as well. The panel examined the five candidates' curriculum vitae, their responses to our questionnaire and the replies provided in interviews - procedures that four of the five candidates agreed to engage with the panel on. We also collected information provided by civil society through a transparent, participatory process. Candidates were given the opportunity to respond to this information. Only the Colombian candidate decided not to make use of the possibility to provide information through the questionnaire and interview. Based on all of this information, the panel drew its conclusions and found that only three of the five candidates - Julissa Mantilla, Margarette May Macaulay, and Esmeralda Arosemena de Troitiño - meet the Convention’s requirements. 

What did the report reveal about the nomination process?

As previous panels have concluded, the independent panel of experts found that nominations are not sufficiently transparent and participatory, and that ultimately affects whether qualified candidates are slated for the General Assembly’s vote. Nomination processes occur behind closed doors, without the participation of civil society, and without reviewing whether the candidates actually meet the requirements of the American Convention. For future selection processes, this should mean that states must propose more candidates and, especially, that candidates finally nominated meet all the requirements for election.  

What do the report’s findings tell us about the future of human rights protections in the Americas?

The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights is one of two supervisory organs of the American Convention on Human Rights, and the only organ that has jurisdiction over all OAS member states. Considering the Commission’s critical role in promoting and protecting human rights, it is clear that only commissioners who fulfill the requirements that the Convention sets out can carry out these tasks credibly and independently from the governments that have elected them.

Update

On Friday, June 28, 2019 the General Assembly of Organization of American States, meeting in Medellin, Colombia, reelected Esmeralda Arosemena de Troitiño (Panama) and elected Julissa Mantilla (Peru), Margarette May Macaulay (Jamaica), and Edgar Stuardo (Guatemala) to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

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