When the Organisation of American States (OAS) convenes a special assembly in Washington today on proposed reforms to the structure and operation of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Jamaica will be on the right side of the debate - and of history.
In particular, Kingston, through Ambassador Stephen Vasciannie, will resist the glib initiatives of an insistent few, which, if they prevail, would ultimately hamper the commission's ability to do its work, including being a watchdog of freedom of expression in the hemisphere. Any such outcome would, of course, be bad for the maintenance of a free press and inimical to the ideals of democracy.
Among the proposals being flogged in Washington is to move the seat of the IACHR from Washington on the grounds that the United States has not ratified the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights, although the IACHR does monitor and pronounce on America's behaviour on this front. In any event, the United States is the largest single financier of the OAS's human-rights system, funding for which would likely be in jeopardy if the commission vacated Washington.
keeping member states honest
But more egregious are the proposals relating to the IACHR's Office of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression. For more than a decade and a half, this office has sought to keep member states honest with regard to freedom of expression; those who can't be kept honest, it highlights their infractions.
It, however, takes money for the Office of the Special Rapporteur to do its work. Some of that now comes from the OAS's regular budget. But a big portion, however, comes as contributions from countries outside the hemisphere, who may earmark the types of projects they wish to fund. Those who would erode the effectiveness of the office claim it to be limiting to the independence of the rapporteur. Yet, they offer no guarantee for the future financing of its office, at a time of budgetary constraints in the hemisphere.
Then there are efforts at the diminution of the Office of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression - without its independence to find its own money, or issue its own reports, the substitute for which would be general statements subsumed in the broader annual reports of the IACHR.
oxygen of democracy
Freedom of expression is the oxygen of democracy. Choke it off and democracy atrophies. Even the most ardent democrat, in positions of authority, knows the temptation to close the spigots when irritating vanguards of free expression such as the free press or the IACHR's Office of the Special Rapporteur.
They remain democratic by resisting these temptations by acknowledgement that not only is democracy good, but that its strength lies precisely in what makes them uncomfortable: the right of people to challenge and exchange ideas; they can ask questions and dissent on what they dislike.
Jamaica clearly appreciates the value of this sometimes messy process for managing our affairs, a quality that we ought not to keep to ourselves. In Washington this weekend, Ambassador Vasciannie must work hard to convince others of this point of view, starting with our partners in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) who may have wandered from the path or wavered in their commitment. Indeed, as CARICOM's lead in external matters, we expect that Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller will make the case to her colleagues.
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