The crisis at the OAS

On May 23, 2016, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (OAS) issued a press communique announcing that it was “going through a severe financial crisis that will have serious consequences on its ability to fulfill its mandate and carry out its basic functions.” It informed that “on July 31, 2016, the contracts of 40 percent of its personnel will expire, and at this time the Commission does not have the funds—or the expectation of receiving the funds—to be able to renew them.” The Commission also reported that it had suspended planned visits for 2016 and cancelled its July and October sessions.

The Commission requested the OAS Permanent Council to place the Commission’s financial crisis on its agenda.  On Wednesday May 25th, the regular meeting of the Permanent Council listened to the Commission’s report.

Mr. Cavallaro, the President of the Commission, listed the advances that the Commission had made in recent years, particularly in reducing the backlog of pending cases and warned that these advances and others would be threatened by the loss of funds.  The Commission’s budget is comprised of “regular funds,” which are from the Organization’s regular budget and “specific funds,” which are voluntary contributions from OAS Member States, Permanent Observers and other Institutions.  The principal contributors to the specific funds are the US and Mexico (US$ 2 and US$ 1 million respectively in 2015.    The specific funds have shrunk because some European Permanent Observer countries are shifting their funds to crises closer to home, such as the migration wave that flooded Europe in 2015 and is expected again this year.  In addition, some OAS Member States have been reducing or not paying their contributions.  Mr. Cavallaro called upon the Permanent Council to come up with a contingency plan for the short, medium and long term to solve the Commission’s financial problem.  He pointed that that compared with the Council of Europe, which allocates 41% of its budget to the European Court of Human Rights, the OAS, allocates only 6% of its budget to the Inter-American Commission.

This is not the Commission’s first financial crisis, but in the past the U.S., or some other countries have always come to the Commission’s rescue and pulled it out of the hole.  During today’s session of the Permanent Council three countries responded with a financial contribution: Panama, Costa Rica and Antigua & Barbuda.  Antigua and Barbuda, (as well as other Caribbean delegations) criticized the fact that the document that Mr. Cavallaro had distributed to the delegations on the financial crisis was only in Spanish.  No doubt it also did not escape the attention of the Caribbean nations that Mr. Cavallaro, a US national, prefers to speak in Spanish to the Permanent Council, rather than in English.

Despite the linguistic slight, Antigua & Barbuda was prepared to make a voluntary contribution by presenting a check for 10% of its regular assessed contribution tomorrow as an example to other states.

The major players, on the other hand were more critical.  Mexico, which has made a voluntary contribution of US $1 million dollars both in 2015 and in 2016, (in addition to its regular assessed contribution to the OAS budget), stated that it would continue making (voluntary) contributions without specifying how much. Mexico noted that the reform of the Commission’s procedures, which ostensibly ended in 2013, still had not been fully implemented.  The Mexican Foreign Minister, Claudia Ruiz Massieu, in a press conference on May 24 stated that Mexico had voluntarily supplied the Commission and the Court with thousands of dollars each year and consequently would not participate in a “rescue Plan” for the Commission and Court.  The Foreign Minister charged that most of the money Mexico contributed was spent on the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) that prepared a report on the disappearance of the students in Ayotzinapa. The Mexican representative also raised a series of questions, such as why is the Commission receiving fewer contributions, why are people losing confidence in the Commission and suggested that the Commission needed to be more transparent and should engage in some self-criticism and self-evaluation.  He even suggested that the Commission consider moving from its seat in Washington, DC to Costa Rica, in order to economize.  He stated that the Commission exhibited bias in its thematic reports, selected certain countries and regions and ignored others, that the issue of universality was still an issue and that the Commission should combat bias in dealing with individual cases.

Chile, however, in my view summed up the latent discontent in the room.  How was it possible that this crisis wasn’t planned for or foreseen?  Sixty days before the announced departure of 40% of its staff, the Commission was bringing this problem to the attention of the Permanent Council.  OAS Member States hinted at a management problem at both the OAS level and at the Commission level.  Succinctly, the Chilean Representative stated that this was not a financial problem but a political problem.  Mexico, Chile, Colombia, Argentina, Paraguay, all agreed that a serious discussion (debate profundo) with the Commission was required on the issues of transparency, universality, etc., either by means of a Working Group or some other such body.

The US Representative, was the 10th speaker to take the floor and began by underlining that the US was the largest financial contributor to the Commission and Court.  In 2016, it had contributed US $2.4 million to the Commission’s voluntary funds.  The US Representative stated that she was working closely with other states “to transform the OAS” and underlined that the financial problems were affecting all parts of the Organization.  But, she emphasized, the “U.S. alone could not fix the financial situation of the Commission” and she recommended that the Commission reach out to find new donors.







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