- The Rise of the Inter-American Human Rights Regime: No Longer a Unicorn, Not Yet an Ox
I. Introduction: The Birth of a Big Surprise
If human rights regimes confirmed the dictum of the Modernist Movement in architecture—“Form follows Function”—then, anatomically speaking, the Inter-American one should resemble the European about as much as the unicorn resembles the ox.
By associating the European regime with an ox, I intend not to insult but rather to celebrate its solid bourgeois virtues: the stolid, efficient application of energy and the consequently consistent production of effective decisions, all within the context of an orderly, stable, and prosperous community. The post-war West European setting did not invite, nor did it require, unpredictable improvisation or heroic challenges to the expectations and desires of governing elites.
Latin America, by comparison, has been a feral jungle for most of the Inter-American regime’s remarkable life. And although today most of the beasts have withdrawn to their lairs (when they are not off exercising their human right to visit Miami and shop at Gucci) passersby still see eyes gleaming angrily in the shadows and hear the tense scrape of claws across stony floors.
When, in the second half of the 1970s, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (Commission) began in earnest to test the limits of its authority—descending on countries, probing their viscera, and returning with graphic accounts of the stench—it appeared as a fabulous creature to [End Page 510] two sets of observers. One was composed by the regimes carrying out murderous political projects. How, they must have wondered, could this organ of an association of governments, they not least among them, implicitly consecrated at birth to the defense of the West against the very revolutionary forces they were busily repressing, be calling them to account? How could these conservatively dressed, middle-aged gentlemen, nominated and elected by the region’s regimes, be harshly indicting various of their electors? It was Dr. Frankenstein and his monster all over again.
Activists and ideologues of the Left, the principal victims of the wave of torture and execution that was engulfing Latin America, formed the other audience where astonishment reigned. I recall a Colombian prison interview in the Spring of 1980. My interlocutor was a thin school teacher with a sweet smile and what looked like a depressed fracture of his cheekbone. He was an admitted member of the M-19 Movement, considered at that point the government’s most dangerous adversary. I began by explaining that I and my Commission colleagues were on a fact-finding trip which would culminate in a report on the condition of human rights in Colombia. And I invoked previously published reports on El Salvador and on the Somoza regime in Nicaragua, reports already well known in Latin America, as evidence of our bona fides. After indicating that he was aware of our recent work, he looked at me winningly and asked if I could explain to him the anomaly of the Commission’s work, since it was the creature of the Organization of American States and the latter was an institution filled with repressive governments and dominated by my own country, the hegemonic defender of the Latin status quo. He seemed genuinely puzzled.
Some seven years after creating the Commission and providing it with a vaguely-worded mandate to assist in the defense of human rights, the OAS had given what the Commission construed, without subsequent challenge, to be authority both to investigate individual instances of alleged human rights violations and to prepare reports on the general condition of human rights in member states. 1 The authority to publish reports endowed the Commission with a potentially wider mandate than its European counterpart. But much of that potential could have been left untapped. The Commission could have concentrated on individual cases, futilely but [End Page 511] respectably pursuing an endless paper trail of victims’ complaints and official denials, and occasionally issuing as “reports” mere collections of the self-congratulatory, no less than imaginative, self-assessments sent up to its Washington offices by one or another government. Instead, it converted itself into an accusatory agency...