The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) said Thursday that it will discuss possible steps to take in response to Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos’ decision to ignore an international ruling ordering him to not allow the dismissal of Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro.
The IACHR, the highest human rights court for the Americas, had intervened on behalf of Petro, whose political rights, the commission said, were violated when he was removed from office last December without due process.
On Wednesday however, Santos signed off on Petro’s final removal from office, dismissing the IACHR ruling issued earlier that day demanding Petro be allowed to serve out his term.
The president argued that the commission had no jurisdiction in the matter, and that the inspector general’s decision to remove Petro was in compliance with the Colombian Constitution, as was determined by various Colombian courts.
Colombia not the first to ignore IACHR
A high-level official IACHR official told Colombia Reports that it is too early to say what actions the commission might take in light of this affront to its authority, but that this is not the first instance that an Organization of American States (OAS) member has skirted an IACHR ruling.
The official, who did not wish to speak as to the commission’s intentions and stressed that any move on the part of the IACHR will come only after extensive deliberation, explained that while the IACHR is — in theory — a binding international body whose members agree to adhere to its statutes and decisions, the true scope of the commission’s power is frequently called into question.
As an example, the official mentioned a 2011 incident in which Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff reacted with similar contempt for an IACHR ruling blocking the construction of a major dam project in the country’s Amazon River Basin. Rousseff expressed outrage at the IACHR intervention, and temporarily recalled Brazil’s ambassador to the OAS following the decision.
The Brazil dispute dragged on through a complicated two-year reform process in the IACHR’s basic structure, but the incident is by no means unique, the official said. Member states frequently disregard IACHR rulings, most of which are not as high-profile as the Petro decision.
The IACHR’s authority over sovereign states
“The problem is the same one you see with all international organizations. There is authority on paper, but little real ability to enforce decisions, outside of the members’ willingness to conform to them,” said the official, who said that Santos’ actions are in clear violation of the IACHR ruling.
Santos himself has acknowledged as much, addressing the IACHR ruling during the announcement of his decision to remove Petro from office.
The Bogota mayor has drifted in something of a political limbo for the past three months. Petro was originally dismissed from office in mid-December by Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez, who deemed there were “irregularities” in the mayor’s conversion of the Colombian capital’s waste management contracts to a public service.
Petro remained in office, however, as a lengthy and convoluted appeals process played out in various domestic courts, as well as the IACHR. Just when Petro seemed to be without recourse in Colombian court, the IACHR stepped in, ordering the immediate suspension of the inspector general’s decision.
Later that same day, Santos gave a press conference from the Casa de Nariño explaining a decree he signed to officially remove Petro, who was replaced by interim Mayor Rafael Pardo, a career politician from Santos’ ruling coalition
While the IACHR is refusing to comment on the matter, Petro has not taken kindly to the president’s actions. The now ex-mayor called Santos a “liar” and Pardo an “impostor,” saying that the president had promised to respect the IACHR’s judgment.
Santos has already demonstrated a discretionary approach to international law. For over a year now, he has rejected international court rulings, including several by the International Court of Justice, settling a territorial dispute with Nicaragua. Regarding the Nicaragua issue, Santos has frequently invoked Colombian sovereignty as a justification for his noncompliance, as he did Wednesday in explaining his dismissal of Petro.
Colombian law does afford the inspector general with broad and vaguely defined oversight powers that include the ability to sanction elected officials and strip them of power. The IACHR, meanwhile, only allows for democratically elected officials to be removed from office if they have been convicted of a crime in civilian court.
Some legal experts have suggested that Colombia could be putting its standing with the IACHR in jeopardy by blatantly disregarding its will in the Petro case, but the official Colombia Reports spoke to said no such discussions are underway as of yet, and that there is no official timeline for an IACHR response to Santos’ actions.
- Interview with IACHR official