This Friday, at the invitation of the Ecuadorean government, state parties to the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights will meet in Guayaquil, Ecuador to discuss proposed reforms to the inter-American human rights system.

The outcome of this gathering, whose results will be presented at an Organization of American States (OAS) Special General Assembly meeting on March 22 in Washington, could have dire consequences for freedom of expression in the Western Hemisphere.

The International Press Institute (IPI) fears that the government of Ecuador is attempting to gather support for measures that would substantially strip the OAS Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of its effectiveness. These measures – which IPI has independently analysed – would significantly weaken the independence and financial position of one of the region’s most formidable voices for protecting the rights of the press.

“All who believe that freedom of the press and of expression are central to democratic development in the Americas ought to be deeply concerned about the proposed changes to the OAS Special Rapporteurship on Freedom of Expression,” IPI Deputy Director Anthony Mills emphasised. “We urge states participating in the Guayaquil meeting to carefully consider the implications of these recommendations, which should be debated in an open and transparent manner that takes into account the views of civil society.”

In June 2011, the OAS Permanent Council authorised the creation of a Special Working Group, open to all 35 member states, with the aim of strengthening the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The IACHR includes eight human rights rapporteurships, one of which is the Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression, established in 1997.

After reviewing the relevant working group documents last year, IPI concluded that Ecuador had used its participation to pursue a radical agenda against the Office of the Special Rapporteur, which had previously expressed concern over the conviction of the owners of the newspaper El Universo on criminal defamation charges.  In Feb. 2012, following the Ecuadorean Supreme Court’s confirmation of the verdict, the IACHR issued an injunction (known as a “precautionary measure”) calling on the Ecuadorean state to immediately suspend the effects of the sentence.

In Dec. 2011, Ecuador won inclusion, in the working group’s report, of three specific proposals that, while appearing to target all eight rapporteurships equally, would disproportionately harm the Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression.

Those three proposals are: (1) include all eight rapporteur reports under a single chapter of the IACHR annual report; (2) assign balanced financial resources among all rapporteurships; (3) introduce a code of conduct to govern IACHR rapporteurships.

IPI believes that states participating in the Guayaquil meeting may attempt to achieve consenus around the second point, which is also the most potentially damaging to the Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression.

Supporters of this measure argue that the Office’s relatively large budget in comparison to the other seven rapporteurships is an indication that freedom of expression is being unfairly prioritised over other human rights issues. This perception is, in IPI’s opinion, mistaken.

Unlike all seven other rapporteurships, the Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression does not receive IACHR/OAS financing, but relies wholly on external donations. This arrangement – which is also practised by the freedom of expression rapporteurships of the United Nations and the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights – was established at the Office’s founding and is critical to maintaining its independence from the governments whose actions it monitors.

The Office’s budgetary situation, therefore, is a reflection only of its ability to fundraise for the initiatives and activities it develops. Currently, the Office receives donations from a number of OAS member states, including the United States and Costa Rica, as well as non-member states Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

There have been two suggested methods for “balancing” financial resources: first, redistribute all internal and external resources equally among all rapporteurships; second, establish an OAS Regular Fund for the rapporteurships that would “guarantee independence” from external contributions and ensure equal disbursement.

The first suggestion ignores the fact that external contributions are nearly always earmarked for a specific purpose or project and cannot be redistributed at will, and would likely lead to their being declined instead. The second would subject the Special Rapporteurship to increased government control and obscures the IACHR’s already existing financial shortcomings (official funding from the OAS is enough to cover just 55% of the Commission’s operational costs across all rapporteurships; the Special Rapporteurship is far from the only one of the eight benefitting from external funders).

It is estimated that requiring the Office of the Special Rapporteur to reject or redistribute funding would result in a loss of 90% of its budget – all but bringing to a halt its indispensable work to protect press freedom and freedom of expression in the Americas.

“The argument that all human rights issues deserve equal treatment makes for a good sound byte – but in this case is misplaced and misleading,” Mills added. “The fact is that if the Office of the Special Rapporteur loses its independence, then its ability to do its job is threatened. That is what is at stake in these discussions.”

Because the debate over the Special Rapporteurship’s finances has been misrepresented as a fight for equality, IPI believes that this recommendation is in danger of being approved at the Special General Assembly. Support has already appeared to spread beyond Ecuador and its ally Venezuela: in an interview last week, Colombian foreign minister María Ángela Holguín said about the Office of the Special Rapporteur,

“With regards to the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, the point that has been discussed is its funding, more than anything else, because the resources that other rapporteurships have, such as those for indigenous rights, women, or children, are infinitely smaller and the rapporteurships should all have a single standard.”

IPI urges participating states to ensure that the proposals in question contribute to the original purpose of strengthening human rights in the Americas – and not, as some fear, to satisfying a political agenda.