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 commission's chairman, Jose de Jesus Orozco, warned Thursday that proposed changes in the way the commission is funded threatens it with "financial strangulation."

Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua -- the commission's most belligerent critics -- have demanded that the commission be prohibited from financing its activities through donations from outside the region.

A third of the commission's $9.5 million annual budget comes from money donated by countries outside the region, and without it funding would be insufficient, Orozco said.

In particular, the commission's special rapporteur on freedom of expression depends exclusively on donations, half it from European countries.

"If the rapporteur is not allowed access to those resources, as things are now, this office would have to be closed," said its chief, Catalina Botero.

The special rapporteur has angered Ecuador and Venezuela by repeatedly accusing their governments of harassing the media.

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

While financing remains the biggest stumbling block to an agreement, there is broader agreement on a series of other reforms proposed by the commission.

The reform would clarify 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 would broaden 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.

Various delegations, led by the United States and Canada, which 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, has established a climate of dialogue.

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