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Why it matters: The OAS decision on the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression

The OAS’s exclusion of Ecuador’s proposed recommendations to “strengthen” the Inter-American Human Rights System is a victory for freedom of expression in Latin America.

Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño speaks to reporters outside the assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington, D.C., on 22 March 2013.
Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño speaks to reporters outside the assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington, D.C., on 22 March 2013.

Wesley Gibbings/ALC-IFEX

In what is being hailed as a success for free expression in the Americas, the Organization of American States (OAS) resolved to exclude recommendations made by Ecuador and backed by countries including Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua, which were seen as significant threats to the strength and autonomy of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression.

The 35 member states of the OAS General Assembly met on 22 March 2013 in a Special Session to conclude a process aimed at strengthening the Inter-American Human Rights System (IAHRS). At a series of meetings held by a special working group and the General Assembly since June 2011, Ecuador proposed three recommendations, which included: (1) consolidating all eight rapporteur reports into a single chapter of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) annual report; (2) balancing financial resources among all eight OAS/IACHR rapporteurships; and (3) implementing a code of conduct to govern them.

Despite the exclusion of these recommendations, a clause in the resolution allows for ongoing discussions on the reform process, meaning that Ecuador and other countries can continue to push their proposals, forcing the OAS/IACHR to continue considering suggestions rather than investing time in human rights issues.

Here is why IFEX members are welcoming the OAS resolution and will fight to preserve the Special Rapporteur's role:

The Special Rapporteur helps strengthen the work of local organisations

For organisations such as ARTICLE 19 Brasil, the importance of the Special Rapporteur lies as much in the promotion of free expression as it does in its protection. Part of the office's mandate is to carry out “promotional and educational activities” and to “advise the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in conducting on-site visits to OAS member countries”. Workshops and trainings managed by the office strengthen journalists' and organisations' understanding of the issues.

Eleonora Rabinovich of the Asociación por los Derechos Civiles (ADC) says that an IACHR visit to Argentina in 1979 “shed light on the most gruesome human rights abuses” and that the IAHRS “helped advance innovative principles that lay the groundwork for the strong protection of speech” currently enjoyed in Argentina.

The Office has the power to protect journalists in danger

On the recommendation of the Special Rapporteur, the IACHR can request OAS member states to adopt precautionary measures to “prevent irreparable harm to persons under the jurisdiction of the State concerned”. One of the proposals for strengthening the IACHR was to remove its ability to impose precautionary measures.

According to a report by the Colombian organisation Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa (FLIP), in 15 years 11 precautionary measures have been issued for the protection of 26 Colombian journalists. These measures can stay in place for years, such as in the case of award-winning Jineth Bedoya Lima, who was first granted an IACHR injunction in 2000 after being sedated, gagged and beaten. Although Bedoya continues to receive threats, she perseveres with her work as a journalist with security provided by her employers, and a bullet-proof car from the Colombian government.

The Special Rapporteur’s work is independent of the agendas of member states

The Special Rapporteur is financed through funding donated specifically for the office by OAS member states, observer countries, and international cooperation foundations, rather than through the OAS itself. “Only a Special Rapporteur with full independence from States and corporations can advance the kinds of principles it has in the last few years,” says the ADC.

Supporters of the proposal to balance funding among the rapporteurships suggested the Special Rapporteur's higher budget indicates that the IACHR prioritises free expression over all other human rights. But according to Alexandre Sampaio of ARTICLE 19 Brasil, that budget is simply an indicator of the office's ability to go after the funding it deems necessary to carry out its work.

The role of Special Rapporteur serves as a model for other regional organisations

In addition to highlighting the important role of the Special Rapporteur in the Americas and the ways in which the rapporteur has been a leader in the movement for greater transparency, the IFEX-ALC, an alliance of IFEX members working in Latin America and the Caribbean, has said that the achievements of the office make it a model for “other continental human rights bodies”.

Recent discussions suggest the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is looking at creating its own free expression rapporteur. If successful, it would become the globe's fifth special mandate on freedom of expression, joining those from the OAS, the UN, the African Commission on Human and People's Rights (ACHPR) and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Erin Woycik is the IFEX Section Editor for the Americas.

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