The recently concluded General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Cochabamba, Bolivia provided a couple more coffin nails for a diverse group of countries patiently working to bury the existing inter-American system. The usual suspects were in the vanguard of the latest assault, with Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua pushing very hard to radically curtail, if not close down completely the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IACHR). At present the idea under discussion is to allow countries to delay the release of country reports for up to a year, radically curtail the independence of the IACHR by putting it more closely under supervision of the General Assembly, and to greatly restrict its ability to comment on the state of press freedom throughout the region.
It is hardly surprising that the chief protagonists of this move are also the ones most staunchly criticized by the IACHR. Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez has repeatedly been criticized for his approach to the political opposition in his country as well as restrictions on press freedom that accompanied acts such as his refusal to renew the broadcast license for RCTV. In Ecuador President Rafael Correa pursued criminal defamation charges against one of the leading daily newspapers, El Universo, and won a massive court settlement before easing back from full imposition of the awarded penalties. The argument from the IACHR’s press freedom reports was not that the presidential grievances were baseless. Privately owned media in Venezuela has relentlessly attacked Chávez and the editorial decisions attacked by Correa were, at best, questionable. Instead, the IACHR and other regional press and human rights observers were raising uncomfortable questions about whether or not some countries in the region were experiencing a dangerous subsidence of the underlying conditions for lasting democratic rule. The charge from the ALBA bloc is that the interventions by the IACHR in the sovereign internal affairs of members states was nothing more than a camouflaged instance of US imperialism backed by Washington’s Canadian cronies.
It is the Brazilian position that is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the ALBA assault on the OAS in Cochabamba. As a tacitly acknowledged counterweight to the US, Brazil has the quiet power to advance or quash initiatives floated in the OAS. Throughout the Cochabamba meetings Brazil remained remarkably quiet, offering little visible defense of the IACHR despite clear statements from president Dilma Rousseff – who was herself tortured during the military dictatorship – that Brazil would advance human rights in its foreign policy. Brazilian silence points to two underlying realities in Brazilian foreign policy.
First, advancement of human rights assumes a minor role in Brazil’s foreign policy agenda. The silence is predicated on a foreign ministry obsession with preventing the creation of precedents that would allow outside intervention in Brazil. The result is an approach that sees foreign policy authorities pointing to the gains that can be made with quiet, behind-closed-doors discussions rather than the sort of public pronouncements and acts that would have a negative impact on relations with countries such as Iran, Sudan and Guinea Bissau. More telling evidence of the place of human rights in Brazil’s foreign policy can be found in the very small size of the foreign ministry unit tasked with managing this international issue.
In practical terms the Brazilian approach to human rights is not terribly different than that found in countries such as the US, France and China. It is an issue that is advanced or ignored to serve other foreign policy priorities. This brings us to the second underlying priority in Brazilian foreign policy, which is to comprehensively emasculate the existing inter-American system and retool it so server Brazilian needs. Brazil has long viewed the OAS as a proxy for US intervention in the region and has consistently worked to mitigate its influence and power. In the 1980s and 1990s this required an oblique approach, which resulted in the successful drive to have one of the country’s top diplomats – João Clemente Baena Soares – named Secretary General of the OAS with an unspoken ambition to quietly hamstring the organization. (Critics might argue that Chile has achieved a similar win with the naming of José Miguel Insulza as OAS head.) Recent Brazilian resistance in the OAS has taken a more direct form, with Canadians being told bluntly in 2001 to butt out of Peru’s electoral process, and the US being told in 2005 that their idea of a democratic enforcement mechanism was a fantastical dream. Interestingly, Chávez social charter was also left cooling its heels in the green room for years.
Brazilian pressure on the inter-American system has only grown as the country’s economy has strengthened. Canada and the US were flatly told they were not welcome, even as observers, at a December 2008 summit of Latin American and Caribbean leaders in Salvador, Brazil. This grouping morphed into a Rio Group / Caribbean cooperation forum before becoming CELAC, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean Nations. With this counterweight in place – a sort of OAS + 1 – 2 because of its inclusion of Cuba and exclusion of Canada and the US – Brazil set out to push harder at denuding the two main pillars of inter-American relations. The most recent Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia may prove to be the last after it was aggressively argued that there was no point holding future meetings without the presence of Cuba. This same issue nearly derailed the OAS at its 2009 General Assembly in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, a meeting that was rescued by agreement on a formula allowing Cuba back into the body.
The attack on the IACHR must have seemed like a welcome and unexpected gift for Brazilian diplomats. Not only did it advance one Brazilian foreign policy priority by further weakening an already feeble institution by denuding one of its effective parts, but it also aligned neatly with Brazil’s own recent outbursts against the IACHR after criticisms were leveled against Brasília’s management of the Belo Monte dam planning process. Brazil’s response was to categorically reject the Belo Monte critique and cut the size of its delegation to the OAS. What was not mentioned was that diplomats posted to the OAS were doing little and that a pretext for their removal was being sought.
Although all neatly wrapped in a Bolivarian flag of regional unity and advancement, the Cochabamba OAS General Assembly appears to have driven a few more nails into the current inter-American system. The question is what will replace it. Even if he does survive his battle with cancer, it is unlikely that Chávez will be able to offer the sort of leadership and coordination necessary to keep hemispheric affairs running smoothly. Decades ago Canada played a role in these issues by quieting ruffled feathers and proposing alternatives, but massive budget cuts to the foreign ministry and a conscious prime ministerial decision to parrot US foreign policy have pushed the Northern country away from the table. Other regional middle-weights such as Chile, Peru, Colombia and Mexico appear to be looking West with the formation of the Pacific Alliance. For its part Brazil is a far from certain leader. Although Brazil seems to like the idea of coordinating and leading the region, the current push to emasculate the OAS seems predicated more on a desire to protect autonomy than advance and manage an attractive alternative project.
It is probably still too early to buy flowers for the OAS’s funeral, but the organization is definitely in ill health. Watch this space for further developments.