The Organization of American States (OAS) and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) are at an unprecedented crossroads for multilateral organizations in Latin America. The OAS brake on the renewal of the IACHR Executive Secretary Paulo Abrão’s employment contract, has opened a series of questions about the independence of the body that defends human rights in the region and, in turn, has uncovered a series of complaints of workplace harassment by Commission employees.
Stability among Latin American organizations was broken on August 15, when the Secretary General of the OAS, Luis Almagro, he advised the IACHR that he would not support Abrão for a four-year term at the head of the human rights institution, just hours before the executive secretary’s contract expired. The announcement opened the way to a series of criticisms of the independence of the IACHR from countries such as Mexico and Argentina, as well as from Latin American human rights organizations. The explanation would take more than 10 days to arrive: at least 61 employees and former employees of the IACHR had filed complaints against Abrão for workplace harassment before the OAS.
Almagro explained in a statement on August 28 that the accusations against Abrão revealed “a very serious situation.” Some 12 complainants have published a letter – held by EL PAÍS – in which they explain that the complaints about Abrão were presented to Almagro and the OAS ombudswoman, Neida Pérez. The former workers claim that in recent years, Abrão was part of actions that resulted in “abuse of power, harassment, retaliation, public humiliation, unjustified removal of functions, loss of positions and discrimination in relation to other people with similar positions”, and that this series of behaviors led them to resign after noticing that the toxic environment in their work environment had affected their physical and mental health.
Many of the complaints were presented before January 2020, when the seven commissioners that make up the IACHR unanimously approved the extension of the new mandate for Abrão. Former workers consulted by this newspaper have confirmed that the complaints had been a recurring theme in both the OAS and the IACHR, but that a formal investigation was never successful and the exodus began. Furthermore, they described a work environment in which bullying prevailed. “I had panic attacks between breakfast and leaving home for work,” says one of them who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals. “I was psychiatrically broke,” he adds. THE COUNTRY consulted Abrão about the accusations and at first, no response was sent. After the publication of the first version of this information, he added that the institutional changes that the IACHR undertook since his arrival generated “natural internal tensions,” but that do not correspond to those described in the accusations. “I vehemently reject any accusation of any form of harassment,” he stated in writing.
For Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch, OAS indications regarding labor complaints must be addressed regardless of the operation of the organization. “Abuses deserve to be compensated, they cannot just be gossip. If there are such serious complaints, they should be rigorously investigated, ”he said. However, Vivanco points out that the way in which the OAS has interfered could be interpreted as a “pretext to block the Commission” and to stop its work in Latin America at a crucial moment. “If Almagro gets his way and manages to block the nomination, he will go down in history with the sad honor of having damaged the credibility and effectiveness of the highest human rights protection entity on the continent in 60 years”, he pointed.
The IACHR is a body that promotes, monitors, and defends human rights in Latin America since 1959. The institution reports directly to the OAS and is based in Washington. However, since its foundation, it has enjoyed remarkable independence that has allowed it to denounce important human rights violations in several countries and bring cases before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR). Abrão has stood out in the diplomatic sphere for his active role in some international conflicts, such as the investigation of attacks against the 2018 civil protests in Nicaragua, by the Government of Daniel Ortega. Meanwhile, Almagro, former Uruguayan Foreign Minister, is seen as an ally of the United States who has defended the toughest positions against Cuba and Venezuela.
Almagro has assured in a statement that he has “no interest in participating in the election of the new executive secretary of the IACHR” and that he does not wish to “appoint a person of his own accord” to the position and that he is only looking for an investigation to begin. The Secretary General of the OAS has declined to take a position on the issue at a request from this newspaper. The IACHR, for its part, has indicated that it received on August 10 the complaints filed with the ombudswoman, which rejects “the characterization of their content” and that it will wait for a formal investigation by the OAS inspector general, respecting the presumption of Abrão’s innocence. A report from the agency Associated Press assures that the ombudswoman, Neida Pérez, collected testimonies from the complainants just a few days before Almagro made public the reasons why she did not admit Abrão’s new mandate.