OAS meets on reform to regional rights commission

Foreign ministers and senior officials from around the Americas meet here Friday to seek agreement on the proposed reform of a human rights body that has sharply divided the region.

Ministers from Ecuador, Mexico, Chile, Peru, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras and Grenada have so far confirmed their attendance at the special session of the Organization of American States.

The regional organization will debate a draft resolution aimed at ending a long-running fight over changes pushed by Ecuador, Venezuela and Nicaragua that critics say will weaken the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

The biggest stumbling block to an agreement has been over the financing of the commission, but there is agreement on a series of reforms.

The reform clarifies the procedure for opening a rights investigation and for issuing "cautionary measures" to governments to protect victims of rights abuses in emergency situations.

It also broadens the focus of a controversial chapter in its annual report that has functioned as a kind of human rights black list and which for years has included Cuba, Venezuela and Colombia.

Instead, it will provide a general evaluation of the region.

Satisfied with those reforms, various delegations led by the United States and Canada, who vehemently defend the commission's independence, have been insisting that the two-year old debate within the OAS now be closed.

OAS secretary general Jose Miguel Insulza says 80 percent of the demands of member states have been satisfied and the commission's new executive secretary, Mexico's Emilio Alvarez Icaza, has established a climate of dialogue.

But Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua -- the commission's most belligerent critics -- have not been assuaged.

These countries are pushing proposals that emanated from a conference organized in Ecuador two weeks ago, which among other things insist that financing of the commission from outside the region should be prohibited.

They also want all the commission's special rapporteurs, or investigators, to have equal capabilities, a levelling which would effectively weaken the special rapporteur for freedom of expression.

This special investigator has repeatedly accused the governments of Ecuador and Venezuela -- to their great irritation -- of harassing the media.

While the draft OAS resolution pledges to fully fund the human rights system, it allows for funding from external sources until that is achieved and makes the strengthening of the rapporteurs contingent on "adequate financing."

The rights commission has an annual budget of 9.5 million dollars, two thirds of which is provided by the OAS, which is considered inadequate to maintain the commission.

Separately, Insulza has proposed creating a $100 million fund to finance both the commission and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Throughout the long debate, numerous non-governmental organizations have warned against any reining in of the commission's autonomy and powers.