February 22, 2023
Secretary of State Antony Blinken
2201 C St NW
Washington, DC 20520
RE: U.S. State Department withdrawal of leading human rights expert’s candidacy to Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
Dear Secretary Blinken:
We the undersigned groups and individuals are deeply concerned and dismayed by the U.S. State Department’s withdrawal of Professor James Cavallaro’s nomination for commissioner to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (“the Commission”) of the Organization of American States (“OAS”).
On February 10th, the State Department nominated Cavallaro because he is, in the State Department’s own words, “a leading scholar and practitioner of international law with deep expertise in the region as well as the Inter-American human rights system.” Cavallaro served on the Commission for the 2014-2017 term, including as Commission President from 2016-2017.
Cavallaro’s recent nomination was welcomed by many in the human rights community in the United States and throughout the OAS region. Four days later, the State Department withdrew its nomination. The Associated Press reported that Cavallaro’s statements about the Israeli government and criticisms of the influence of pro-Israel lobbying groups led to the withdrawal of his nomination. The State Department noted that Cavallaro’s statements “clearly do not reflect U.S. policy” and “are not a reflection of what we believe.” Cavallaro reports that State Department officials informed him that the basis for the withdrawal of his nomination was his posts on Twitter about Israel and Palestine.
It is alarming that the State Department has reversed its decision and disqualified one of the most distinguished, independent human rights experts on the Americas from joining the region’s human rights oversight body based at least in part on his well-grounded analyses of international human rights issues.
The State Department should reinstate Cavallaro’s nomination for the following reasons:
Cavallaro is one of the most distinguished human rights advocates in the Americas.
Following Cavallaro’s leadership of the human rights programs at both Harvard and Stanford Law Schools, the State Department nominated him to the Commission in 2013. He served both as Commissioner (2014-2017) and President (2016-2017), as well as Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons Deprived of Liberty. In these roles, his numerous achievements and contributions have had lasting consequences for victims’ access to justice and the protection of human rights in the OAS region.
Commissioners on the Inter-American Commission are independent human rights experts, not spokespeople for their country’s foreign policies.
The effectiveness of the Inter-American Commission rests on the independence of its Commissioners from their governments. This is reflected in the Inter-American Commission’s Rules and Procedures, which prohibit commissioners from participating in discussions and voting on matters that concern the country of which they are a national.
Cavallaro’s criticism of the Israeli government is consistent with the findings of prominent human rights organizations.
Palestinian, Israeli, and international human rights organizations, advocates, and scholars have all published reports concluding that the Israeli government’s repression of Palestinians amounts to apartheid.
Withdrawing the candidacy of a distinguished human rights advocate for their criticism of human rights abuses in Israel/Palestine or any other context sets a dangerous precedent that impacts human rights advocacy across the globe.
Human rights practitioners and scholars should not fear professional reprisal for expressing their views about human rights violations, especially those carried out by U.S. allies. This undermines free expression, academic freedom, and the work of all human rights advocates, particularly those who do not have the same kind of platform as Cavallaro.
The State Department’s move is harmful to the global human rights movement and undermines the credibility of the United States in advocating for human rights in other parts of the world.