Attack the OAS: Inside the ultra-conservative war on the Inter-American human rights system

“The attack first started when I was president”, Margarette May Macaulay, a lawyer and former judge from Jamaica who was elected to the top post at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in 2018. She told openDemocracy how the US state department “said they could not give money to spend on my rapporteurship because we were promoting abortion”.

“We do not promote anything,'' said the lawyer, explaining the work of the body she oversaw. Its mandate includes investigating rights violations including unfair trials, extrajudicial executions, and violence against women. “The only thing we do lobby for is for ratification of conventions,'' she said. “But they still cut the money because I think they wanted to anyway”.

The IACHR is one of two main, autonomous bodies of the Organisation for American States (OAS). The regional organisation has 35 member-states including all Latin American and Caribbean countries, though Cuba does not participate in its talks, plus Canada and the US – which is the system’s main funder though it never ratified its American Convention on Human Rights.

In December 2018, nine US senators publicly asked secretary of state Mike Pompeo to cut funding for the OAS on the grounds that this money would be used on to “lobby for abortion in Latin America”. They specifically criticised Macaulay for organising a public hearing on sexual and reproductive rights in Argentina while that country’s parliament was debating an abortion bill.

This March, at a meeting of the US National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, a conservative activist Alfonso Aguilar explained how he was working closely with the Trump administration and its OAS ambassador to oppose efforts to increase protections to sexual and reproductive rights at the IACHR. “We can take over the OAS”, he declared.

Six days later, Pompeo announced $210,000 of US funding cuts to the OAS “in light of recent evidence of abortion-related advocacy”. This move was celebrated by international, conservative lobby groups including Spain-based CitizenGo, as well as its news website Actuall, and ACI Prensa, an online outlet affiliated with the US Eternal Word Television Network.

‘Attack the OAS’

Over the last decade, the OAS has approved new human rights conventions including those in 2013 against racism, discrimination and intolerance. Civil society groups also proposed a specific convention on sexual and reproductive rights, though this has not been formally tabled. 

Strategic alliances of black, LGBTIQ and feminist groups helped gain political traction for these agreements, according to a lawyer who follows OAS negotiations and requested anonymity. But they have come under increasing attack – from conservative states as well as from civil society groups.

“It’s a new issue that civil society, historically committed to the system’s strengthening and defense, is now demanding changes against gender perspectives, LGBTIQ people and reproductive rights. The strategy is directed at weakening the system’s ability to demand protection standards”, Peruvian human rights lawyer Pedro Calvay Torres told openDemocracy.

At the forefront of this new, conservative civil society charge are US groups, some of them with close ties to the Trump administration, including the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) Christian right lobby group, the US-based Human Life International and several of its local branches, Population Research Institute, Focus on the Family, C-FAM, World Youth Alliance and Spain-based CitizenGo.

Their tactics have included lobbying for funding cuts, smear campaigns against progressive members of OAS bodies and opposition to the system’s binding rules.

When Macaulay ran for re-election this year, seven Jamaican religious groups asked prime minister Andrew Holness to withdraw his support for her. A separate letter from representatives of Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Paraguay and Chile, warned the OAS and IACHR against overreaching their mandates, and requested that the system be reviewed and reformed.

“This letter was really attacking our autonomy, in the same way as the US position was”, said Macaulay. Meanwhile pressure mounted ahead of June’s OAS general assembly in Colombia, where four of seven IACHR commissioner seats were to be renewed. “Some representatives, including or led by the US, were actively opposing… our nominations”, she said.

Hundreds of civil society activists also attended that OAS meeting, grouped into 33 coalitions – 11 of which promoted ultra-conservative positions, according to openDemocracy’s review of their members and positions. One was led by the ADF Christian right lobby group which has its headquarters in Arizona and also has links to the Trump administration.

That coalition’s Colombian spokesperson shouted accusations of ‘corruption’ and ‘lack of independence’ against the IACHR and its current president Esmeralda Arosemena – who was also chased in the street by a Colombian senate aide after warning against the growth of ‘anti-rights’ movements.

Despite this opposition, Arosemena and Macaulay were still re-elected to their IACHR positions. Also elected were Edgar Stuardo Ralón Orellana, a Guatemalan lawyer who is aligned with conservative positions, and Julissa Mantilla Falcón, a Peruvian lawyer and expert on gender and sexual violence.

Conservative lobbies further failed to prevent a modest step forward for the protections of intersex people, who were explicitly included for the first time in an OAS resolution this year. Since then, “things are moving quietly and we will see if there is any more upheaval down the line”, said Macaulay.

Propaganda and legal strategy

The US group ADF was granted accreditation by the OAS in 2014. But it was also present at the body’s 2013 general assembly in Guatemala, where it led a contingent of a hundred conservative activists who tried unsuccessfully to thwart new conventions against racism, discrimination and intolerance, according to the lawyer who follows negotiations and requested anonymity.

Since then, the US lobby group has been active at the OAS coordinating “ultra-conservative groups’ legal strategy, providing the language and the arguments to water down sex and reproductive rights standards and also articulating advocacy and lobby on country delegates”, she said.

A key “propaganda strategy,” she continued, is ultra-conservative rallies and petitions against supposedly ‘imminent approvals’ of abortion or same-sex marriage, which are not on official agenda, so they can later claim victory.

ADF’s own annual report said that it held a 2018 “training event for 70 Latin American leaders from nine countries” ahead of another summit in Washington. These trainees were members of a coalition of evangelical pastors and legislators called the Ibero-American Congress for Life and Family, which holds expensive conferences behind closed doors.

The event in the luxurious Ritz-Carlton hotel in Pentagon City, according to an investigative report by Columbia University, served to unify conservative criteria and strategies to increase their influence at OAS decisions.

Founded in 2017, the Ibero-American Congress for Life and Family has become another key player at the OAS. It led five of the thematic civil society coalitions at this year’s summit in Colombia and organised a side event at which ADF participated. At a meeting in Uruguay last year, it also discussed targeting other international organisations in 2020, including the WHO, Unesco and the IMF.

ADF did not respond to requests for comment on this article.

Progress and backlash

The OAS has taken a number of recent steps to address gender and sexuality-based discrimination, including the formation by Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, the US and Uruguay of a new LGBTI Core Group in 2016, shortly after the deadly shooting in a gay disco in Orlando.

The next year, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued a landmark advisory opinion declaring that gender identity rights are protected by the American Convention on Human Rights. It recommended that states extend all existing laws, including on marriage, to their LGBTIQ citizens. 

ADF, among dozens of other conservative groups, had intervened in the case opposing the very idea of a regional body advising countries on these topics. 

Also in 2017, the IACHR urged “all states to adopt comprehensive, immediate measures to respect and protect women’s sexual and reproductive rights”, and warned “that laws criminalising abortion in all circumstances have a negative impact on women’s dignity and their rights to life”.

Last year, the IACHR welcomed moves in Chile to decriminalise abortion in some cases as well as the decision by El Salvador authorities to commute the 30-year sentence of a woman who already served 10 years for a miscarriage under that country’s particularly restrictive, punitive abortion laws.

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While the voices of conservative civil society groups have multiplied at the OAS since 2013, more conservative governments have also taken over in Argentina, Chile, the US, Colombia and Brazil — countries that had previously played leading roles in launching the OAS LGBTI Core Group, for example. 

“Some of these are states we have looked upon as friends of the commission, so it is shocking,” Macaulay said. 

The interplay between the two, conservative state and civil society, is currently on display amidst discussions over what should happen when OAS secretary-general Luis Almagro’s term expires in May 2020. 

Almagro has been a key ally of the Trump administration against Venezuela and Cuba, but has been recently attacked by a coalition of US anti-abortion requesting that the US withdraws its support for his second term. 

These groups “represent American citizens that voted for president Trump”, said coalition’s spokesperson Alfonso Aguilar, who claimed they are having “constructive exchanges” with US officials on this issue.

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