Human rights standards and international norms to protect and defend democracy are being systematically weakened. Actions by countries of the Global South (democratic and nondemocratic) and competitive autocracies (such as Venezuela and Turkey), either acting individually or through newly created multilateral organizations, have intentionally or unintentionally diluted the liberal normative international order. We see it in the lack of collective responses to political prisoners in Venezuela, China or Turkey, in the odd alliance of states in the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC or Council) that refuse to vote against human rights abuses in places like Syria, Iran or Belarus, and in the weakening of international standards for democratic elections. Decades-old international practices and commitments to political and civil rights are on the march—backward.
This report is the first analysis in an ongoing project to monitor the foreign policies of Latin America and the new Global South and their effect on global norms and standards designed to defend human rights and democracy. There are a number of international bodies and activities to monitor in this regard. We have chosen to focus on four: the United Nations (including the UNHRC), the Organization of American States (OAS), including the inter-American system of human rights, and the newcomers in the Western Hemisphere, the Union of South American Republics (UNASUR) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).
What we have found is that despite the majority of the hemisphere’s governments being (at least nominally) democratic, there is no clear pattern of support for democratic institutions and rights, neither among neighboring states nor in much of the developing world. In existing global multilateral bodies (the UN Security Council and UNHRC), countries such as Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Bolivia tend to abstain or vote against any form of comment or criticism in the name of defending political and civil rights in countries from Belarus to China to North Korea. Even countries like Brazil and Colombia, at times, toned down their public commitment to human rights and democracy when it came to China, Russia or Turkey. In contrast, countries like Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Uruguay remain stalwart defenders of human rights in the UN.
In the OAS inter-American system of human rights, those countries that have been strong advocates for human rights in the UN tend to be so in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR or Commission) and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (Court), with the exception of Argentina. That difference came in the refusal of the previous Argentine administration to accept civil society’s complaints to the Commission concerning judicial independence. Overall, the inter-American system has been under attack from other corners as well, as we discuss, including from an alliance of countries led by Ecuador to weaken the IACHR in 2011, and from Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, which have refused to accept the system’s jurisdiction over domestic cases, effectively removing themselves from the system.
Last, we consider the region’s multilateral diplomatic bodies, OAS, UNASUR and CELAC. In the case of the first, as we explain, despite the OAS Democratic Charter, the Permanent Council has remained collectively silent on the clear deterioration of democratic rights and institutions in countries like Venezuela and Ecuador and on political prisoners in Venezuela. In part, that has been the result of a bloc of countries receiving Venezuelan oil. But part of it stems also from a general weakening of consensus across the hemisphere and a lack of leadership on these issues. At the same time UNASUR and CELAC have provided new forums for autocrats to assert national sovereignty and nonintervention over matters of basic political and civil rights, often with the quiet acceptance of democratic governments, such as those of Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru. One result has been the weakening of international electoral standards in a hemisphere once held up as a model for the world.
world, election observation
standards in the hemisphere
In the following pages, we detail how governments have acted across international and regional forums to support democracy and human rights. There is a great deal of variation in the hemisphere, and some countries remain committed to both, subjecting themselves to and promoting norms and processes to defend political and civil rights. But, as we reveal, there is also a group of countries that often demonstrates a stronger commitment to allies in the Global South than a commitment to sustaining the broader liberal order from which many of them benefited only a few decades ago.