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OAS adoption of working group proposals threatens independence of Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression

(IPI/IFEX) - VIENNA, 26 Jan. 2012 – The Organisation of American States (OAS) Permanent Council yesterday adopted by consensus the proposals of a working group convened last June to strengthen the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

But included among the non-binding proposals were three recommendations that threaten the reach and independence of the Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression—a key bulwark against rising media repression in the Western hemisphere.

As IPI reported earlier this week, those recommendations had been aggressively pushed by Ecuador, whose government appeared to have been angered by the Special Rapporteur's criticism of its actions toward the media.

Ecuador's permanent representative to the OAS, María Isabel Salvador, stressed that her country wanted only to ensure that all eight IACHR human-rights rapporteurships were being treated equally. “All rights deserve the same attention and all rapporteurships should have the same resources,” she said, according to news reports.

Unlike the other seven rapporteurships, the Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression publishes an extensive stand-alone annual report and benefits from external funding. If fully implemented, Ecuador's recommendations would end both of those practices, forcing the inclusion of the annual report into the larger IACHR report and requiring balanced funding among the rapporteurships. The third recommendation calls for a code of conduct to govern the rapporteurships.

A number of member states appeared not to buy Ecuador's official line. Speaking specifically about the Office of the Special Rapporteur, Uruguay's representative, Jorge Collazo, was quoted by media as saying: “What is being accomplished here by including the annual report as one more chapter of the IACHR general report is stripping [the Office] of visibility, impact, and importance”.

Panama's representative, Guillermo Cochez, added: “The reports must be continued—even if they upset certain countries.”

IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie said: “Given Wednesday's decision, it is critically important that OAS member states remain vigilant about protecting the Office of the Special Rapporteur. The work of the Special Rapporteur has never been more important. Any changes to the IACHR must be made with a view to strengthening human rights in the Americas, not weakening the very institutions that protect them.”

The next step in the debate remains unclear. Despite efforts by a number of countries, including the United States and Chile, to play up the non-binding nature of the proposals, these will now likely head to the OAS General Assembly for further discussion, possibly at the level of foreign minister, according to an IPI source close to the process.

As an independent body, the IACHR would likely make the ultimate decision whether to adopt or reject certain provisions. But, the source added, the Commission will be under strong political pressure to accept at least some of the working group's suggestions.

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