While many of us were concentrating our attention on other areas, such as the recent elections in Mexico, Venezuela and the United States, something dangerous has been happening almost unnoticed in Latin America: an attack on the system of human rights throughout the region. At the beginning of last week the Latin American countries elected Venezuela as a new member of the UN Human Rights Council. Yes, you read that right: Venezuela, whose president Hugo Chávez still enthusiastically speaks up for the Syrian butcher Bashar al-Assad, the Castro brothers in Cuba, and a number of other tyrants around the globe. In theory, according to the pertinent UN resolutions, the members of the Human Rights Council must "maintain the highest standards in promotion and protection of human rights." But the Latin American governments cheerfully voted for Venezuela.
While the European countries presented five candidates to fill their region's three rotational places, the Latin Americans presented only three -- Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina -- resulting in their automatic election. No other country from the region raised any objection.
"We had asked other Latin American countries to present candidates, but none did," said Peggy Hicks of Human Rights Watch after the election of Venezuela on November 12.
The system of inter-American human rights is in serious danger"
International human rights organizations are angered, but not entirely surprised, by Venezuela's election. Though the Council occasionally criticizes flagrant violations of human rights in Syria or Iran, its most active members have at times included regimes such as China and Cuba, and it has often functioned as a mutual-protection club among some of the world's worst dictatorships.
According to Freedom House, which publishes an annual index of liberties in the world, Venezuela is a "partially free" country. In a statement on Venezuela's election to the Council, Freedom House says that though in Venezuela "the act of voting is relatively free, and the vote count exact," the division of powers is "practically nonexistent."
But the election of Venezuela is only a symptom of something far more serious, occurring throughout the region: the dismantling of inter-American institutions for the protection of human rights. At the request of Ecuador and Venezuela, and under the shifty pretext of "strengthening" the Human Rights Commission of the Organization of American States (OAS), the Latin American countries have initiated a process of hearings in the OAS with the objective of reducing the powers of the Human Rights Commission and of the Office of the Special Rapporteurs for Freedom of Expression.
Both agencies enjoy considerable independence to investigate concrete cases in OAS member states, and to publish reports on them. They are by far -- perhaps the only -- such agencies the OAS possesses. Contrary to Hugo Chávez's assertion that the Commission is an instrument of the "empire," last year it recommended more precautionary measures against the United States than against any other country of the region, with the exception of Honduras.
Surprisingly, the offensive of Ecuador and Venezuela against human rights has obtained the tacit support of Argentina, Brazil and other countries that supposedly defend universal human rights, and that owe some debt of gratitude to the OAS Commission for having, at the time, denounced the military dictatorships that existed in their countries during the 1970s.
"The system of inter-American human rights is in serious danger," warned the director of Human Rights Watch for the Americas, José Miguel Vivanco. "They want to take away its power to investigate abuses by governments, and turn it into a forum for conferences and seminars."