Andres Oppenheimer

Andres Oppenheimer: Who’s best, who’s worst in race for OAS top job

The recent nomination of two South American candidates to lead the 34-country Organization of American States (OAS) is causing concern — and in some cases alarm — in international human rights circles. And judging from some recent stands by these candidates on various issues, critics have good reasons to be worried.

So far, there are three official candidates to succeed outgoing OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza, a former Chilean politician who has led the Washington-based regional institution for nine years, and who is scheduled to step down in May 2015.

The candidates, nominated by their respective countries, are Uruguayan Foreign Minister Luis Almagro, former Peruvian Foreign Minister and Inter-American Human Rights Court Judge Diego García Sayán, and former Guatemalan Foreign Minister Eduardo Stein.

Human rights activists are especially worried by García Sayán and Almagro, who according to diplomatic sources, are courting the votes of Venezuela and its ALBA bloc allies in the region. In recent years, the ALBA bloc countries have actively sought to weaken the OAS’ human rights commission and the OAS’ office of the special rapporteur of freedom of expression, which are by most measures the OAS’ most effective agencies.

Jose Miguel Vivanco, head of the Americas department of the Human Rights Watch advocacy group, is one of several human rights leaders who have been highly critical of García Sayán’s tenure as head of the Inter-American Human Rights Court.

Writing in the Spanish daily El Pais of Spain last December, Vivanco said that García Sayán’s vote in a landmark case involving criminal sentence against an Argentine journalist “marked a very serious setback that not only hurts fundamental rights and freedoms, but also weakens the battle against corruption.”

The García Sayán-led court supported an Argentine judge’s ruling that Pablo Mémoli, a small town newspaper publisher from Buenos Aires province, had allegedly libeled several people who had illegally sold cemetery lots that were public property. An Argentine judge had ruled that the lots had been sold by mistake, and García Sayán and three other judges supported the ruling against the journalist, Vivanco wrote.

García Sayán’s court also voted against prominent Venezuelan exile politician Allan Brewer Carías, whose claims that he could not get a fair trial in Venezuela had been validated previously by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, a separate OAS agency, human rights activists say.

Asked about García Sayán’s nomination, Vivanco told me that the fact that García Sayán has kept his job as judge of the Inter-American Human Rights Court while campaigning for the top OAS job “is scandalous, because he had an obvious conflict of interest by campaigning for the OAS job and trying to get the votes from the very countries he was supposed to be evaluating.”

García Sayán asserts that he has not been campaigning for the OAS job. The court issued a statement on Thursday stating that it was accepting an Aug. 16 request by García Sayán to be excused from participating in the court’s activities as long as he is campaigning for the OAS leadership.

Santiago Canton, a director at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights and former head of the OAS Human Rights Commission, says that “the Inter-American Court headed by García Sayán has been a clear step backwards in the defense of freedom of expression and due process.” Canton added that “with such a background, he wouldn’t be a good candidate for secretary general of the OAS.”

Almagro, the Uruguayan candidate who, according to several diplomats, is backed by Venezuela, has been openly supportive of Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro and late President Hugo Chávez. Almagro supported Maduro’s controversial election last year, and has refused to condemn the Venezuelan government’s killings in the student protests that left at least 42 dead, 874 wounded and 3,306 arrested earlier this year.

When asked by reporters about the deaths in Venezuela, Almagro responded that “both sides” — the students and government forces — should be blamed for the violence. According to a 103-page report on the violence issued by Human Rights Watch in May, Venezuelan government forces shot students at point blank range, and there were at least 10 documented cases of torture by security forces.

“If it’s true that the ALBA bloc supports Almagro, it would be a serious problem, because his mission is to defend OAS human rights monitoring agencies, and these countries have mounted a campaign to weaken them,” said Vivanco, of Human Rights Watch.

Stein, the Guatemalan candidate, is credited by human rights groups for having played an outstanding role in the OAS mission to Peru that denounced widespread abuses during former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori’s government in 2000, and played a key role as mediator after the coup against President Manuel Zelaya in Honduras in 2009.

Some human rights activists, however, criticize Stein’s signing last year of a public letter criticizing “genocide” charges against former strongman Efrain Rios Montt. Stein has said that the public letter has been “misinterpreted,” and that it essentially called for due process to investigate all human rights crime.

My opinion: The race for the top OAS job is just starting, and we’ve yet to see what the two South American candidates will say to prove their critics wrong. In the meantime, judging from their public stands, it looks like Stein is the strongest supporter of democracy and human rights of the three.