Press Release

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) Condemns the Serious Attack on Its Autonomy and Independence as a Principal Body of the Organization of American States

August  25, 2020

   Related links

   Contact info

IACHR Press Office

   More on the IACHR
A+ A-

Washington, D.C. — In response to the decision of the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, to abstain from moving forward with the process of renewing the mandate of the Executive Secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the latter wishes to protest vigorously and express its alarm at this serious attack on its independence and autonomy.

In the course of its duties, the IACHR selected Paulo Abrão for the position of Executive Secretary on July 27, 2016, after a lengthy selection process. In accordance with the terms of Article 11 of its Rules of Procedure, it informed the Secretary General of the OAS, Luis Almagro, of its decision. Secretary Almagro confirmed the selection and appointed Mr. Abrão, who took office on August 16.

In the course of the same duties, the IACHR unanimously decided at a meeting held in Mexico on January 8–9, 2020, to renew the mandate of the current Executive Secretary for the 2020–2024 period. On January 9, it informed the Secretary General of the OAS of its decision in an official note “in accordance with Article 11, paragraph 3 of the IACHR Rules of Procedure” and for administrative purposes. This decision was also made public through press release 05/20, dated January 10, 2020. The reasons that prompted the IACHR to renew the mandate of the current Executive Secretary and confirm its confidence in him included the need for the organization to be led by someone with the skills and qualifications necessary to consolidate the transformation and modernization of the IACHR’s work, lead the process of concluding the Strategic Plan 2017–2021, and craft a new plan for the future that is in line with the IACHR’s vision for the protection of human rights in the region.

On August 15, 2020, the last day of Mr. Abrão’s term in office, the Secretary General of the OAS informed the IACHR without prior consultation of his decision to abstain “from moving ahead with the process of appointing the Executive Secretary” of the IACHR, which in practice translates into a refusal to extend the Executive Secretary’s employment contract, which is required to extend his mandate. The IACHR wishes to inform the international community that this unilateral decision on the part of the Secretary General constitutes a blatant disregard for the IACHR’s independence and autonomy and constitutes a de facto dismissal of the Executive Secretary from his position, rendering the decision made eight months ago by the IACHR to renew his contract void. It is noteworthy that over the course of this period, at no point did the Secretary General call the IACHR decision to renew the Executive Secretary’s mandate into question.

The IACHR acknowledges that in the message received on the last day of the current Executive Secretary’s first term in office, the Secretary General cited two reports as the basis for his decision: one drafted by the Secretariat for Legal Affairs of the OAS General Secretariat on the remit of the Secretary General regarding the process of appointing the Executive Secretary and the procedure for addressing proposals from the IACHR; and another from the OAS Ombudsperson, the contents of which are confidential.

In response, the IACHR is extremely concerned over the interpretation of the standards set out in the legal report on which the Secretary General is basing his decision, according to which the IACHR Rules of Procedure are merely a nonbinding interpretation of the IACHR Statute and the OAS Charter, and thus the Secretary General is not obliged to comply with them. This interpretation ignores the current standards and practices that have been followed consistently since 2000 and were applied in both 2012 and 2016 to select and appoint the two most recent Executive Secretaries, and also to renew the mandate of Special Rapporteur Edison Lanza in 2017 and that of the Special Rapporteur for ESCERs, Soledad Garcia Muñoz, in 2020. The interpretation of the standards referred to by the Secretary General runs counter to the opinion of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IA Court), which has established that the IACHR “as an organ of the inter-American system for the protection of human rights, has full autonomy and independence to exercise its mandate in accordance with the American Convention on Human Rights.”

Indeed, by interpreting that the IACHR is not authorized to select and review the mandate of the Executive Secretary, the legal report is ignoring not only the OAS Charter that established the IACHR as a principal, autonomous, independent body of the OAS on par with the General Secretariat, but also the fact that the IACHR Statute, which was approved by the General Assembly, entrusts the IACHR with the task of adopting its own Rules of Procedure. By virtue of this mandate, the IACHR has adopted various Rules of Procedure, which are mandatory in accordance with the provisions of transitional article 25 of its Statute. The report also fails to note that, as a safeguard for the IACHR’s autonomy, the Statute stipulates that for the Secretary General to proceed to dismiss the Executive Secretary from the IACHR, he or she must first consult with the latter and inform it of the reasons for his or her decision.

Given that the power to appoint and dismiss trusted personnel from their positions is indispensable for the IACHR to be able to carry out its mandate to monitor and promote human rights in the Americas, the standards on which the Inter-American System of Human Rights (IASHR) was built respond to the need to safeguard its remit and institutional autonomy such that external stakeholders cannot decide who performs these tasks, let alone remove them from their positions.

Throughout its 61-year history of defending human rights, the autonomy and independence of the IACHR have been strengthened and fiercely defended by Member States, civil society, and victims of human rights violations as being one of the core pillars of its legitimacy. Indeed, since the year 2000, the IACHR has made significant progress toward greater administrative autonomy through a process of dialogue and coordination with successive Secretaries General of the OAS, including Secretary Almagro himself, who in 2016 confirmed the selection of the current Executive Secretary and appointed him to the post for a four-year period, in compliance with the IACHR Rules of Procedure. This is not the first time that the IASHR has faced such attacks. However, the great progress that has been achieved on inter-American standards would not have been possible if the IACHR had not fully exercised its autonomy and independence.

This autonomy and independence enable the IACHR to go about its work impartially, free from any political influence, making it an example and benchmark for the world. The legal interpretation that the IACHR used to decide unanimously to renew the mandate of the current Executive Secretary is based on the inter-American legal framework that is currently in force and on legal precedents such as the Secretary General’s commitment “to achieving greater technical and administrative autonomy for the Commission” set forth in Directive D-1/2000.

It should be noted that this discussion was raised in the past and settled in dialogue with all relevant stakeholders in the Americas, including the Secretary General of the OAS, as per the terms of the IACHR Rules of Procedure. The IACHR hopes that this extremely concerning situation can also also be settled through dialogue on this occasion.

With regard to the confidential report of the Ombudsperson on the situation of the Executive Secretary in 2019, of which the IACHR was notified on August 10, 2020, as the principal body of the OAS responsible for promoting and protecting human rights in the Americas, the IACHR attaches the utmost importance to the report and thus requests that it be processed to the highest standards of due process, duty of investigation, and due diligence.

The IACHR reports that throughout 2019 it has given the matter its maximum attention and has monitored each of the situations described in the report and the measures adopted to address them. At the same time, the IACHR is deeply surprised that although the situations in question took place in 2019, the Ombudsperson has waited until five days before the Executive Secretary’s contract is due to expire to discuss them. The IACHR and its Executive Secretariat provided the Ombudsperson with ample information with due diligence and was open to the suggestions she made regarding these situations, the vast majority of which were implemented, as is recorded in a detailed report that was submitted to the Secretary General on August 14, 2020. The IACHR also reiterates that it is entirely at the disposal of the General Secretariat to address the new situations that have only just been brought to its attention and will process them to reassert its prioritization of the needs of the Executive Secretariat’s personnel, particularly the well-being, stability, and professional development of all staff members. The IACHR also stresses its firm position on the need to address each and every one of the issues that have been raised, to consider and verify all factors that form part of the file in question, with full respect for the guarantees of due process and the principle of the presumption of innocence, and asks that consideration be given to all of the measures implemented by the Executive Secretariat of the IACHR in 2019 and which the General Secretariat was duly informed of in a report from the Executive Secretary. The IACHR also reiterates its trust in the current Executive Secretary.

In this sense, attempting to use a confidential institutional report from the Ombudsperson or information that an administrative investigation is being initiated as the basis for the decision not to renew the mandate of the Executive Secretary is inadmissible and is a clear violation of IASHR standards. The IACHR recalls jurisprudence of the IA Court that states that the guarantees of due process established in Article 8 of the American Convention on Human Rights are applicable to all processes, including administrative processes, especially the principle of the presumption of innocence and the impartiality of the competent authority, such that individuals are in a position to defend their rights appropriately in response to any action that may affect them, regardless of whether this is of an administrative or disciplinary nature.

On this occasion, the IACHR takes note of, supports, acknowledges, and is grateful for the work carried out by Secretary Abrão over the last four years. It once again confirms its confidence in Secretary Abrão, reiterates its unanimous decision to renew his mandate, and requests that the Secretary General continue with the administrative procedure to extend the Executive Secretary’s contract. Under his leadership, the IACHR has succeeded in strengthening access to an intra-American justice system that is more effective and accessible for victims of human rights violations in the Americas, providing timely, comprehensive monitoring, and strengthening technical cooperation initiatives. The outcomes of this work are documented in the progress reports on the implementation of the Strategic Plan 2017–2021 and other progress reports: The outcomes of this work are documented in the progress reports on the implementation of the Strategic Plan 2017–2021 and other progress reports: the 2017 expansion of its administrative structure; the 2017 progress report; the 2018 progress report; the results of the special monitoring mechanisms in 2018; the results for precautionary measures in 2018; the 2019 stages in the program for overcoming procedural backlog; the 2019 progress report; the SACROI COVID-19 progress report; and the partial progress report for 2020.

The IACHR rejects interference of any kind with the exercise of its mandate, particularly its power to elect, renew, and dismiss its trusted officials. The IACHR also calls for full compliance with the commitment made in Cancún regarding the doubling of the budget approved by the OAS General Assembly to ensure that there are no setbacks to the capacities of the IASHR for protecting and defending human rights. The IACHR emphatically calls for these powers to be defended and respected as they are indispensable to its being able to perform its mandate free from any pressure or interference that might attempt to limit the scope of its work defending, monitoring, and promoting human rights in the Americas independently and autonomously.

Finally, the IACHR reiterates its vote of confidence in renewing the mandate of the current Executive Secretary and expresses its willingness to engage in dialogue with the Secretary General and all OAS bodies to reach a solution that respects the IACHR’s autonomy and independence.

No. 202/20