Press Release

IACHR Calls on Countries to Combat Corruption and Guarantee Human Rights Through Public-Sector Transparency and Accountability During the COVID-19 Pandemic

September 16, 2020

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Washington, D.C. - As part of the work of the Rapid and Integrated Response Coordination Unit for the COVID-19 pandemic crisis (SACROI COVID-19), the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) notes how important it is for countries to take action to prevent and combat corruption as a measure to guarantee the enjoyment and exercise of human rights during the current health emergency. In this regard, as part of the measures and initiatives it has adopted to help contain the pandemic, the IACHR called on states to strengthen their transparency and accountability mechanisms as these are a fundamental principle of public policies that take a human rights approach and are a way to guarantee the population’s right of access to information.

The IACHR has become aware of a series of problems that have arisen as a result of the reduction or lack of supervision of the public sector during the health emergency that has been declared in most countries in the region. These are allegedly impacting the human rights situation and could be caused by acts of corruption. Among the most serious of these impacts, the IACHR has been informed of situations in which public contracting and procurement processes were not made public, the absence of complete, timely, up-to-date information and the publication of this through the usual channels, and the lack of clear criteria for accounting for expenditures made during the health emergency. It also expresses its concern over how the conditions imposed on the financial assistance agreements that some states in the region have adopted as a measure to address the health crisis are impacting human rights.

The crisis unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic has required states to provide rapid responses to address, prevent, and contain the spread of the virus. This has translated into situations in which decision-making has been concentrated among the authorities leading the executive branch of government and has led to an increase in the use of discretionary powers, such as the repeated use of executive decrees and regulations without parliamentary process. The IACHR deems that the need for an agile, timely response cannot imply that government decisions are exempt from monitoring or are no longer subject to processes that guarantee transparency and accountability. In times of emergency, it is essential for state supervision mechanisms not to be made more flexible and for them to function effectively, in accordance with the legislation established to ensure that mobilized resources reach the areas and populations that have been hit hardest by the pandemic and to implement measures to combat the health crisis within a framework of full respect for human rights and democratic institutions.

Likewise, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has caused disruptions in the functioning of the judicial and legislative branches in some states in the region. At present, some parliaments and courts are gradually returning to their normal operations. Given this context, states need to guarantee and strengthen parliamentary and judicial monitoring of decisions made during the health crisis. They also need to guarantee that independent mechanisms are in place to ensure that any complaints that are be filed over acts of corruption are processed promptly and effectively.

The IACHR and the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression (OSRFE) have pointed out that freedom of expression is one of the most effective ways of speaking out against corruption and allowing social participation in decision-making processes and monitoring the public sector. Similarly, they have expressed their concern about the restrictions that have been imposed on access to information during the COVID-19 pandemic and have called for states to guarantee the rights to access to public information and refrain from establishing arbitrary blanket restrictions based on security reasons or public order. As a recommendation to prevent corruption in this context, the IACHR calls for requests for access to information regarding the public health emergency to be prioritized, along with requests regarding the allocation of public funds, especially budgets for procurement and contracting during the emergency. The IACHR also called on states to engage in proactive reporting on the impact of the pandemic and expenditures made during the emergency using accessible, open formats and disaggregating the information in question in accordance with best international practices.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur on Economic, Social, Cultural, and Environmental Rights (OSRESCER) also expresses its concern over the particular impact that these actions may have on the use and enjoyment of ESCERs in the region, particularly the right to health and the social factors that contribute to this. It is thus essential for mechanisms to be implemented to guarantee accountability and the transparency and monitoring of procurement of health-related goods, infrastructure, and equipment. Likewise, the IACHR and the OSRESCER have warned of situations in which the close relationship between corporations and high-ranking state authorities could lead to the former obtaining certain prerogatives and benefits, sometimes in an irregular fashion, such that they avoid the regulations that govern public goods such as health, the environment, or the population’s food and nutrition, which could allow impunity and corruption to advance, to the detriment of human rights. In this regard, it is fundamental to ensure the greatest possible transparency in relationships that link companies and economic sectors with state decision-making during the COVID-19 pandemic, and to guarantee safeguards to identify, make visible, and reduce conflicts of interest that may occur in these situations by calling for effective sanctions against those responsible should irregularities be found.

Furthermore, the IACHR has expressed its particular concern over the disproportionate impact that corruption and inappropriate use of public funds intended to mitigate the health emergency may have on the enjoyment and exercise of human rights by groups of people living in particularly vulnerable situations. States must therefore adopt all necessary measures to prevent and investigate acts of corruption and promote positive, targeted measures to this end through a framework of additional protection for individuals and groups living in poverty, vulnerability, and exclusion.

In this regard, the IACHR emphatically reiterates the provisions of Resolution No. 1/2020 on Pandemics and Human Rights in the Americas, in which it called on states to ensure that mechanisms for accountability and access to justice are in place to respond to potential human rights violations during the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including violations committed by private stakeholders and acts of corruption or arrest on the part of the state to the detriment of their human rights. To combat the scourge of corruption and promote institutional strengthening, the monitoring and reduction of discretionary uses of power, accountability, and the monitoring of public-sector activities, the IACHR recalls the importance of developing and implementing public policies that allow for states to consolidate a comprehensive strategy for fighting corruption with a human rights approach.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 223/20