A Human Rights Initiative for the Americas

THE overthrow of elected governments in Haiti and Peru and the attempted coup in Venezuela underscore the fragility of democratic institutions in Latin America. As the Bush administration pursues its Enterprise for the Americas Initiative to extend free trade across the hemisphere, the region needs a comparable initiative to promote democracy and human rights. The Senate took a step in this direction April 2 when it ratified the United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It should now ratify the American Convention on Human Rights, as part of an initiative to reinforce democratic institutions throughout the Americas.

The Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the American Convention on Human Rights are, respectively, the global and hemispheric counterparts of the US Bill of Rights. They seek to restrain the powers of governments in favor of individuals and civil society. The preamble to the American Convention states that human rights "are not derived from one's being a national of a certain state, but are based upon attributes of the human personality, and ... therefore justify international protection."

By ratifying the American Convention, which has been adopted by every Latin American and Caribbean country except Brazil, Cuba, and Guyana, the US would gain access to both the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. By recognizing the binding jurisdiction of the Commission and the Court, we could help transform these institutions into effective means of enforcing fundamental human rights, among them the prohibition on torture, rights of due process, and th e right to elect governments in free and fair elections.

A key feature of the Convention is its provision for individual petition to the Inter-American Commission. This enables any person, group of persons, or non-governmental organization to file a complaint after domestic remedies have been exhausted. The commission may then present the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, whose decision is binding on all states that have recognized its competence. These arrangements are essential to the development of due process in many Latin countries, where

local courts may lack independence, and in some cases lack authority to enforce certain rights.

In Mexico, for instance, the Supreme Court is prohibited from enforcing labor and political rights, and from reviewing the constitutionality of laws. Lacking domestic means to secure their right of "effective suffrage," Mexican opposition parties and independent civic organizations have filed complaints with the Inter-American Commission. The Commission has twice responded by notifying Mexico of its obligation to provide balanced electoral commissions and effective means of challenging electoral fraud. I gnoring treaty obligations, however, the Mexican government refuses to implement the rulings.

WITH Mexico nonetheless anxious to secure a free-trade agreement, the US has an unusual opportunity to exercise leadership. Once we ratify the Convention and recognize the jurisdiction of the Court, we may require Mexico to likewise accept the Court's jurisdiction as a condition of free trade. With the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement seen as a model for future agreements with other Latin American countries, it is important to emphasize the complementarity of free trade, free societies, and t he rule of law.

By promoting multilateral institutions, the US can also send a welcome signal to Latin American countries that it intends to replace hegemony with genuine pan-American partnership. The Inter-American Court, whose seven justices are selected from among distinguished human rights jurists and are independent of their respective governments, could become a model for other hemispheric bodies that could enforce common environmental and labor standards and resolve trade disputes.

Just as ratification will provide opportunities to promote human rights abroad, it will likewise open our own practices to outside review. Though our system of government is in many ways exemplary in its enforcement of human rights, it is not infallible. Whenever it should fail one or more of our citizens, they too will be entitled to petition the Inter-American Commission. Such enhanced opportunities for due process can only reinforce our freedoms.

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