Why congressional Republicans should support the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

A group of nine Republican U.S. Senators have sent a letter to Secretary of State Pompeo asking him to cut U.S. funding to the IACHR. What they’re doing is undercutting their own party’s human rights agenda.


  • Christopher Sabatini

    Dr. Christopher Sabatini, is a senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, and was formerly a lecturer in the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University. Chris is also on the advisory boards of Harvard University’s LASPAU, the Advisory Committee for Human Rights Watch's Americas Division, and of the Inter-American Foundation. He is also an HFX Fellow at the Halifax International Security Forum. He is a frequent contributor to policy journals and newspapers and appears in the media and on panels on issues related to Latin America and foreign policy. Chris has testified multiple times before the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. In 2015, Chris founded and directed a new research non-profit, Global Americas and edited its news and opinion website. From 2005 to 2014 Chris was senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas (AS/COA) and the founder and editor-in-chief of the hemispheric policy magazine Americas Quarterly (AQ). At the AS/COA, Dr. Sabatini chaired the organization’s rule of law and Cuba working groups. Prior to that, he was director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the National Endowment for Democracy, and a diplomacy fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, working at the US Agency for International Development’s Center for Democracy and Governance. He provides regular interviews for major media outlets, and has a PhD in Government from the University of Virginia.

Having worked on democracy and human rights in Latin America and the Caribbean for more than 20 years, I can say that most—but not all—of the hemisphere’s human rights community skews left. As I’ve written before, there are reasons for this, stemming in part from battles against the brutal right-wing dictatorships of the 1960s and 1970s and the unfortunate frequent bias of U.S. policy to overlook abuses committed by allies in the fight against communism during the Cold War. But throughout it all, one multilateral institution has remained above the partisan, polarized fray: The Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR or Commission). 

While many human rights NGOs preferred often to criticize U.S. policy in countries like Cuba and 1980s Nicaragua—while downplaying human rights abuses in those countries—and the UN’s Human Rights Council has been overtaken by apologists for North Korea, Venezuela and Iran, the IACHR, has been steadfast in calling out repression and in protecting activists and journalists with equal vigor in Cuba as in Colombia. 

Now, nine U.S. Republican senators want to end U.S. funding for the Commission, effectively killing one of the most effective non-ideological, multilateral champions of human rights in the countries they care most about: Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. In a December 21, 2018 letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the nine senators urge the U.S. to cut off funding to the IACHR based on the Siljander Amendment, which prohibits U.S. public funds from supporting groups that lobby for or against abortion. The problem is not only that cutting off U.S. funds to the Commission would harm human rights and U.S. standing in the region, but that their very reasoning is wrong. 

A response, written by five former commissioners and candidates to the Commission—all lawyers—argues in lawyerly detail all the reasons that the IACHR’s activities do not constitute lobbying. For one, the IACHR is not representing a client; it is a juridical body attached to a multilateral organization that responds to petitions by plaintiffs or requests from governments.  For another, the IACHR communicates in an official capacity, and does so publicly, not privately, as do lobbyists. Rather than me bungle all their all the legal arguments, it’s best if you read the letter here.

More shocking is that the supposed offending act in question is a brief that the Commission provided in response to a request by the Argentine legislature for a detail of the IACHR’s recommendations and jurisprudence on reproductive rights. If true, punishing the Commission for this offense would be like cutting off funding to the Congressional Research Service every time it provided a report in response to a member’s question related to reproductive rights. 

This week, four high-ranking Senate and House Democrats also wrote a letter urging Secretary of State Pompeo not to cut off funding to the Commission. (You can read the whole letter here.) Ironically, the Democrats make the case that Republicans—including Pompeo—should be making. Among other accomplishments, the letter cites the Commission’s work in issuing “precautionary measures”, including recently demanding the protection of Juan Guaidó, considered the legitimate president of Venezuela by the United States and more than 50 other governments, and a Nicaraguan human rights activist. The letter also mentions the IACHR’s work in documenting human rights abuses by the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua and its longstanding work in cataloguing the deterioration of democracy in Venezuela.

They are right. But it shouldn’t take a group of Democratic legislators to point this out to Republicans. Defending the region’s crown jewel of human rights defense shouldn’t be a partisan issue, especially when the arguments marshaled by a minority bloc of Republican senators for punishing it under the Siljander Amendment are unfounded. You don’t have to take my word for it—it’s what the lawyers say.

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