OAS takes up future of human rights body

Foreign ministers and senior officials from around the Americas began meeting here Friday to decide the future of the region's premier human rights body amid warnings it could be weakened by the outcome.

Even before the Organization of American States opened the special session on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Ecuador and Nicaragua expressed skepticism that a compromise could be reached to end a two-year long fight.

"We are proposing that we give ourselves sufficient time to treat this matter with seriousness and in depth," Ecuador's Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino told reporters.

The ministers were considering a draft resolution backed by the United States, Canada and other countries that would adopt some reforms of the rights body but stop short of demands pushed by a group of leftist countries.

Patino, however, said Ecuador wanted further debate on issues like moving the commission from Washington, its financing, its power to demand that governments take "cautionary measures" in human rights cases, and the role of its special rapporteurs, or investigators.

Among other things, Ecuador, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia have demanded that the commission be prohibited from financing its activities through donations from outside the region.

The commission's chairman warned Thursday that restrictions on funding of its activities would lead to its "financial strangulation."

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, commission chairman Jose de Jesus 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.

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

The draft resolution 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 blacklist which for years has included Cuba, Venezuela and Colombia. Instead, it will provide a general evaluation of the region.