Banding together to defeat Argentina’s utterly unfit candidate to the IACHR

Published by openDemocracy, this opinion piece analyzes the joint work and individual strategies that different Argentine, regional and international organizations used to convince OAS member states to reject Argentina’s candidate to the IACHR, Carlos Horacio de Casas.

By Gastón Chillier and Gabriela Kletzel

The abductions, killings and enforced disappearances carried out under Argentina’s 1976-1983 dictatorship came to light thanks in part to the efforts of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). More recently, the IACHR’s standards and decisions have helped spark new rights-based legislation in our country, such as the Migration Law and a military justice code.

From the dictatorship to the present, the commission has been a critical ally for the Argentine people and its democratic institutions. That is why Argentina has been an important backer of the regional system for human rights protection, proposing prestigious professionals to serve on the commission and the inter-American court.

So when the current government nominated Carlos Horacio de Casas to the IACHR earlier this year, it marked a huge step backwards – particularly given the large number of qualified candidates available.

His law firm defended the interests of a mining company that caused serious harm to indigenous communities in Guatemala.

De Casas is a lawyer with virtually no human rights experience and a long history of defending corporate interests. He has taken open stances against women’s reproductive rights and the rights of LGBTI persons. He also publicly supported the crime of contempt, which has been used to criminalise journalism and has been condemned by the IACHR itself. After his candidacy was announced, De Casas lied about the record of a military official he represents who has been charged with dictatorship-era crimes against humanity.

The only interaction that De Casas had with the inter-American human rights system previously was to defend Uruguayan corporate executives accused of financial crimes. And before the system, his law firm defended the interests of a mining company that caused serious harm to indigenous communities in Guatemala.

In sum, his record could hardly have been worse.

Civil society organizations, including our own, joined forces to keep De Casas from being elected by the Organization of American States (OAS). This occurred first at a national level and later expanded to include organizations from other countries as well as international groups, such as Human Rights Watch.

Within Argentina, a remarkably diverse array of actors mobilised to formally object to his candidacy: more than 130 Argentine organisations – including human rights groups, trade unions, peasant movements, associations that work on issues of justice, gender equality, the environment, LGBTI rights and freedom of speech – requested that the country’s foreign minister and human rights secretary withdraw this nomination. A group of more than 60 scholars also contested his candidacy.

In addition, these organizations and actors worked to inform public opinion about the troubling setback that this represented, leveraging social media tools and coordinating with the renowned Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo and the Ni Una Menos women’s collective to contribute video testimonies to the campaign.

The materials expressing concern and opposition to De Casas’ candidacy were sent to the embassies of OAS countries in Buenos Aires and to the OAS member states’ missions in Washington. Many meetings with diplomatic staff were also held.

Meanwhile, two former presidents of the IACHR, Robert Goldman and Juan Méndez, urged Argentina’s president to withdraw De Casas’ candidacy. Finally, an international panel of independent experts raised red flags over his credentials. Based on his curriculum, his professional trajectory and his publications, the panel expressed “its concern regarding compliance with the requirement that the candidate have recognized competence in matters of human rights.” None of the five other candidates nominated to serve as IACHR commissioner prompted criticism of this kind.

But the government did not budge.

The nomination of De Casas casts doubt over the Argentine government’s intentions regarding the regional human rights protection system.

What’s more, on the day that the commissioners were to be elected (June 21), human rights groups present at the OAS Assembly in Mexico reported that Argentina was trying to persuade Caribbean states to vote for De Casas in exchange for weakening its traditional leadership position on protecting LGBTI persons’ rights, in a separate OAS resolution. Argentine organisations made a final push to expose this dirty dealing.

In the end, this broad-based campaign worked. De Casas came in fifth out of the six candidates seeking to serve on the IACHR, with only those voted in the top three securing a place on the commission.

The nomination of De Casas casts doubt over the Argentine government’s intentions with regard to the regional human rights protection system, because it contrasts with the country’s successful drive to get approval for a much-needed increase in the system’s budget at the OAS Assembly. If De Casas had won, it would have marked a serious setback in all the OAS member states’ commitment to a strong, effective and competent IACHR. Thanks to the efforts of national, regional and international organizations, along with other key actors, this regressive scenario was averted.