Don't call the OAS.

Photographer: JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images

Ecuador Exports Its Kangaroo Courts

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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Forget for a moment that Brazil is in its worst recession in a quarter century, Latin America's exports are in the tank, and citizens across the region are marching against corruption.

No matter that in parts of the Western Hemisphere, human rights are worth less than the Venezuelan bolivar.

These days, whenever the Organization of American States convenes -- as it did this week in Washington for its 45th general assembly -- magical thinking takes over.

How else to explain the election of Patricio Pazmino Freire to the Inter-American Court for Human Rights? The 57-year-old magistrate also happens to preside over the Ecuadorean Constitutional Court, which ought to raise a red flag or two. There, he has earned a reputation for never disappointing President Rafael Correa. He faithfully ratified the 2013 Organic Communications Law, for instance, which paved the way for the government to sue or silence its critics and turned Ecuador into the worst country in the Americas to be a journalist after Cuba and Venezuela.

That would have been bad enough had Correa not dropped in on the OAS court headquarters in San Jose, Costa Rica, in January, to leave behind a big "abrazo" and a $1 million check, prompting one Ecuadorean commentator to call Pazmino a Trojan horse. Which paymaster will Pazmino abide, the regional high court or the Andean caudillo, when complaints involving Ecuador reach the bench, as they did three times last year?

Correa's ambitions are no secret. Ever since the regional tribunal called out his government for its campaign to silence the opinionated columnist Emilio Palacio and punish his paper, El Universo, Correa has tried to gut or capture the OAS. 

More troubling is the free pass Correa has gotten from his neighbors. Pazmino was elected on Tuesday night with 22 of 23 valid votes. There was no nomination hearing and no one leaned on Pazmino to respond to "multiple efforts" by a judicial watchdog group seeking to hear him out on the crucial six-year assignment.

More than a laissez-passer, this was a symptom of deep disorder at what used to be the highest table of hemispheric diplomacy. Divided, distracted, short of ideas and funds, the 68-year-old organization is languishing. Of the 35 member states, 21 are in arrears.

The countries of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, inspired by the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, have long called for transferring the group's headquarters from Washington, seat of the "empire," to Latin soil. But nothing gets the companeros in more of a lather than the OAS's human rights mission, which Michael Shifter, of the Inter-American Dialogue, has called "the heartbeat" of the Americas' pact.

For one thing, signatories to the American Convention on Human Rights must respond to commission inquiries and abide by the decisions of its corresponding court. No wonder Venezuela's Chavez renounced the human rights convention in 2013. (In fairness, Chavistas note that the U.S. and Canada have never signed the convention -- but then again, would you rather try your luck before the yanqui courts or the Bolivarian bench?) Recently, for instance, French journalist Maude Versini claimed that her three children were kidnapped by her estranged husband, the powerful Mexican politician, Arturo Montiel Rojas, then a mentor to President Enrique Pena Nieto. When she got nowhere in the Mexican courts, she appealed to the OAS human rights commission, which sided with Versini and called on Mexico to protect the children.

"The human rights system is the only alternative many people in Latin America have to find justice when the path in their own country is barred," said Jaime Aparicio Otero, the former Bolivian ambassador to the U.S., who represented Versini.

As to whether the OAS can keep that system thriving, the jury is still out.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net