Politics and Human Rights
Nelson Camilo Sánchez July 2, 2014
How much should politics have to do with human rights? This is an old question for those dedicated to promoting human rights at the domestic or international level. There have been various answers throughout the years, but the debate is not yet over.
Some activists consider that politics should not play a role, or at least play a miniscule role, in decisions regarding human rights. With great effort the human rights system has been built through a system of norms that establish objective standards of behavior. Human rights law prescribes conduct and establishes obligations whose nonfulfillment has consequences. Sanctions for non-compliance should be objective and handed down by bodies that are competent, impartial, and independent of States.
Under such a vision, politics distorts more than it helps. The concrete example of how this equation does not work if it is contaminated by political factors is the behavior of the United Nations Security Council, and, in particular, its regrettable inaction in the cases of Syria and Ukraine. The Syrian case is tragic. More than two years after the conflict began and with a body count of more than 20,000 and 9 million displaced people, the international response has been nonexistent. This represents a total crisis of multilateralism and action of the international community in its collective obligation to protect rights.
The empire of law is vanquished by political considerations of each of the Security Council members, especially the five permanent members. No concrete action has been taken. No concrete proposal has even been presented for fear of being vetoed. Some think that this would be different if the decision were made by a technical body or a legal court.
But on the other side of the spectrum, other experiences lead one to think that a bit of politics, and to be more precise, political will, would do well to advance certain human rights issues. A latent example is the situation occurring in the American hemisphere, which a few years ago was seriously questioning its regional system, anchored to the structure of the Organization of American States, OAS.
The hegemony that the United States exercised in the OAS for decades has led to an enormous lack of legitimacy of this body, which has translated into serious attacks against its human rights system. For economic and political issues, many Latin American countries have demonstrated their inconformity with the political forum of the OAS and have been regrouping into a series of complex and repetitive subsystems of cooperation and alliances: Celac, Unasur, Alba, Mercosur, Pacific Allance… and the list continues to grow.
As the OAS appears more discredited and useless to States, it will have less efficacy and relevancy in its technical and successful human rights system. Attacks that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has received in recent years have had some echo thanks to this general situation of discredit of the OAS. And efforts to avoid the weakening of the human rights system of the Americas (and any hope of strengthening it in the future) would have to start by confronting this situation.
Why do States in the region prefer to meet in parallel conferences and make decisions that ignore the institutions that they already have? For the simple reason that in these other forums there is a true political dialogue. The General Assembly of the OAS has become, in its better moments, a conference of ambassadors, with repetitive and routine topics.
This is not the case in the new, sub-regional discussion forums. By means of comparison, the last CELAC meeting convened the presidents of the region in Cuba, while no president attended the last General Assembly meeting of the OAS in Asunción, Paraguay.
The United States and Canada have an enormous responsibility with respect to this situation and can do much to remedy it. The former houses the headquarters of the organization down the street from its presidential home, but has not sent high level political representation to its meetings in decades.
If one truly wishes to revive the political discussion of the OAS, as the US has stated, it is necessary to refine political will. The OAS is the only forum in which Latin American and Caribbean countries can speak as equals to larger, Northern countries. It is likely that the participation of President Obama the General Assembly would receive an important turnout of Latin American presidents. The same would happen with Canadian political representation at the same level.
The Inter-American Human Rights System depends on this political system. International bodies in their subsidiary character are only functional to the extent that States implement the international standards, which requires more than good legal criteria.
The international system as we know it today has enormous limitations. One of these is the difficult relationship between politics and normative standards. Too much politics is harmful in many ways, but its absence would practically nullify the system. The challenge is to close the gap between the abuses of each one of these extremes.