Well, that didn’t take long. Much has been made of the Trump Administration’s flagging commitment to human rights as a core tenet of United States foreign policy, but we may have just seen the first concrete setback for U.S. interests as a result of the Administration’s apparent ambivalence about defending democratic values and international institutions.
On Wednesday evening at the Organization of American States (OAS) General Assembly in Cancún, Mexico, the United States’ candidate lost an election to serve on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). Doug Cassel, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, received just 16 votes of a possible 34 from OAS member states. While the election was competitive—with six candidates for three seats—the result came as a surprise to most IACHR watchers and represented a stinging defeat for U.S. diplomacy.
There are a few plausible explanations for Cassel’s defeat, and they are not mutually exclusive. But first, a word on what this was not: a reflection on Professor Cassel’s own qualifications for the role. Cassel is a prominent human rights scholar and practitioner with decades of experience working on justice issues across the Americas. Even in a large field that included the three well-qualified candidates (from Mexico, Brazil, and Chile) who were ultimately elected, Cassel’s pedigree stood out. He was assessed favorably by an independent review panel and this website’s own evaluation of the candidates. In interviews and meetings with civil society, he displayed a mastery of the Inter-American human rights system and notable independence from the Trump Administration that nominated him. As I argued here, the Administration’s laudable nomination of a strong, independent candidate suggested an appreciation for the IACHR’s crucial role as hemispheric human rights watchdog. Indeed, for some of the Administration’s most ideological supporters, Cassel was altogether too independent.
So this was not a repeat of 2003, the only previous time a U.S. candidate had lost an IACHR election. Then, the Bush administration tried to use the IACHR as a political appointment and nominated a candidate with strong connections but a very thin human rights resume. Fourteen years later, the candidate’s resume was very clearly not the issue. What was?
One explanation is that the United States lacked an effective electoral ground game. The U.S. is unique among countries in the Americas in maintaining a policy of not exchanging votes in support of its candidates for the IACHR and similar bodies. This is praiseworthy, but puts U.S. candidates at a disadvantage, and makes high-level diplomatic outreach all the more important. When U.S. candidate James Cavallaro was elected to the IACHR in 2013, senior Obama Administration officials including Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry personally lobbied other countries for votes. It is fair to say the Trump Administration placed a lower priority on Professor Cassel’s election, notwithstanding the dogged campaigning of U.S. diplomats and Cassel himself. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson cancelled his attendance at the General Assembly at the last moment, forfeiting an opportunity to lock down votes—and possibly handicapping efforts to pass a resolution on Venezuela as well. The U.S. has not had an ambassador to the OAS since 2014, and did not match the resources that the governments of Brazil, Chile and Mexico dedicated to the IACHR race. Nonetheless, going into the election the U.S. delegation and most civil society experts expected Cassel to be elected.
Voting for IACHR members is by secret ballot, so it is impossible to know with certainty which OAS countries supported Professor Cassel, which didn’t, and why. But following the vote, diplomats and observers in Cancún speculated that a Trump effect may have been at play. Indeed, the Trump Administration hardly conveyed a high regard for the IACHR when it boycotted hearings on US human rights practice in March of this year. And strains of the new administration’s broader foreign policy on Latin America, human rights, and international cooperation—whether kind words for dictators, the border wall with Mexico, withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, or the partial reversal of Obama’s opening to Cuba—have been met with skepticism in hemispheric capitals. It is not hard to imagine that some countries took the opportunity to send a message of discomfort with the new direction in Washington.
Time will tell whether the U.S. defeat in Cancún is a harbinger of declining US soft power in the Americas. Certainly, talk of declining U.S. influence has proven overblown before, and other factors may have been at play in the IACHR election, such as a rumored late surge by the Argentine and Chilean candidates among countries in the Caribbean. For the Trump Administration, however, it is an early reminder that leadership in the Americas must be earned on the basis of a proven commitment to shared interests, institutions, and values.
Michael J. Camilleri is director of the Peter D. Bell Rule of Law Program at the Inter-American Dialogue. He is a former IACHR staff lawyer and served in the Obama Administration as a member of the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff and as Director for Andean Affairs at the National Security Council. Follow him @camillerimj