OAS takes up future of human rights body

The United States, Mexico and Chile pledged strong support and additional financial contributions to the region's premier human rights body Friday as they weighed its future.

"For more than five decades, the Commission has served as the hemisphere's moral conscience," US Undersecretary of State William Burns said during a special session debating the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

The meeting at the Organization of American States was convened with the aim of ending a two-year fight over proposed reforms, but a group of leftist countries came out against a US-backed compromise.

The United States, which along with Mexico and Canada is calling for an immediate end to the dispute, announced a special contribution of $1 million to the Commission, whose annual budget is $9.5 million.

"A stronger and more capable Commission is in all our interests," Burns said in urging other countries to also step up and make financial contributions.

"We must be vigilant against efforts of some to weaken the commission under the guise of reform."

Chilean Foreign Minister Alfredo Moreno pointed to the "urgency" of resolving the standoff over funding the Commission.

Mexico announced $600,000 in aid, while Chile provided "additional," unspecified contributions. Argentina has previously said it would give $400,000.

One of the major points of friction between member countries has been financing the Commission.

Ecuador, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia put forward a rival draft resolution calling on the organization to extend discussion on the rights Commission at least until June, when it holds its annual assembly in Guatemala.

They have demanded that the commission be prohibited from financing its activities through donations from outside the region.

"To close the discussion now, when it is evident that we have not been able to deal with and resolve the principal problems experienced by the system, would leave many countries out" of a consensus, said Ecuadoran Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino.

The ministers also were considering a 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 the bloc led by Ecuador.

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

Costa Rican Foreign Minister Enrique Castillo formed a working group to try to reconcile the two resolutions.

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 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 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 de facto human rights blacklist that for years has included Cuba, Venezuela and Colombia. Instead, it will provide a general evaluation of the region.