Org. of American States boss slammed over watchdog’s removal

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FILE – Secretary General of the Organization of American States, OAS, Luis Almagro addresses the OAS during the opening of the 52nd General Assembly of the OAS in Lima, Peru, Oct. 5, 2022. According to an administrative ruling on Oct. 24, 2022 by the OAS’ top review panel, Almagro unfairly maligned the reputation of Brazilian lawyer Paulo Abrao who he abruptly fired as the region’s top human rights watchdog. (AP Photo/Guadalupe Pardo, File)

MIAMI (AP) — The head of the Organization of American States unfairly maligned the reputation of a Brazilian lawyer who he abruptly fired as the region’s top human rights watchdog, according to a new administrative ruling that casts a harsh light on the internal dealings of the Washington-based group.

The decision Monday by the OAS’ top review panel stems from OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro’s widely condemned effort in 2020 to remove the head of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights.

It’s the second administrative ruling questioning Almagro’s leadership in as many months and comes on the heels of allegations that the Uruguayan-born diplomat violated the OAS’ code of ethics while carrying on a romantic relationship with a much younger staffer.

In early 2020, commissioners unanimously endorsed renewing Paulo Abrao’s four year contract as head of the human rights watchdog, an independently run organ under the OAS’ umbrella charged with investigating abuses by the region’s governments.

But their decision was blocked by Almagro, who nearly nine months later said he couldn’t rubber stamp the appointment of someone responsible for fostering a workplace environment marked by dozens of complaints of favoritism, conflicts of interest and impunity for employees accused of sexual harassment.

“It is extremely serious to ignore these rights,” he said at the time, insisting that he had no interest in picking the commission’s leadership but rather was standing up for civil servants. “That is no longer passive complicity; it is an active cover-up.”

The administrative tribunal in its 81-page ruling identified numerous instances of what it called “disconcerting” violation of Abrao’s due process rights, driven by Almagro and the OAS’ ombudswoman, Neida Perez.

On Aug. 10, 2020 — days before Abrao’s contract was to expire — Perez sent to Almagro, Abrao and the commission an undated report detailing complaints about the workplace environment. In the report, she recommended that urgent actions be taken to mitigate the ongoing concerns although avoided urging any disciplinary proceedings as required by her role as an impartial arbiter of workplace disputes.

But four days later, in an email just to Almagro, she recommended that Abrao’s contract not be renewed — something the majority of the panel said raises suspicions and “reflects a regrettable lack of transparency, fair treatment and orderly handling of official communications with senior OAS officials.”

The judges said they also found evidence that the 61 complaints Almagro cited as a basis for removing Abrao may have not existed as described and may have only consisted of “visits” to the office involving objections against several employees, not just Abrao. In either case, a formal investigation was never launched and Abrao wasn’t given an opportunity to defend his record before being removed.

To compensate for moral, professional and personal damages, the tribunal instructed the OAS to provide Abrao with 12 months back pay. It also ordered Almagro to sign an employment verification letter stating that Abrao wasn’t facing any disciplinary investigations when his contract lapsed.

“I was dramatically affected by these irregularities and the sentence does not completely satisfy me, neither materially nor legally,” Abrao said in a statement to The Associated Press. “But it reveals a lack of accountability on the part of the OAS that surely the states — as funders — and civil society need to look at diligently.”

The OAS said the secretary general always complies with the tribunal’s ruling and recommendations. But it pointed out that the tribunal threw out one of Abrao’s claims, namely that his contract was illegally terminated by the secretary general, finding instead that it had expired.

Almagro’s office gave no indication it would abandon its support for the embattled ombudswoman, saying it respects the OAS’ independent monitoring and supervision mechanisms.

“The General Secretariat of the OAS will always safeguard and recognize the right of victims to decide whether or not to formalize their complaints,” spokesman Gonzalo Espariz said in a statement.

The ruling is the second in as many months questioning Almagro’s handling of personnel matters.

In August, the tribunal blasted the Secretary General for firing an otherwise standout veteran American manager, Steven Griner, who was blamed by a Trump-appointed diplomat for purportedly orchestrating a rumor campaign about U.S. policy toward Honduras. The tribunal reinstated Griner and faulted Almagro for going along with a discredited inspector general’s report based on what it called a “glaring falsehood.”

The same inspector general who investigated Griner is now leading an internal probe against Almagro over allegations that he carried on an intimate relationship with a staffer two decades his junior that may have violated the organization’s code of ethics.

Almagro has denied any wrongdoing, stating that he never supervised the woman’s work nor participated in any employment related decisions. However, in several online bios as well as in photos with Almagro as recently as March, some of them posted to the OAS’ social media accounts, the woman is described as an “adviser” or sometimes “head adviser” to the secretary general.

Almagro was elected as head of the OAS in 2015 with near unanimous support after having served as foreign minister in Uruguay’s leftist government.

Once installed in Washington, he made common cause with the U.S. in opposing Cuba and Venezuela’s socialist governments, once even mimicking President Donald J. Trump’s line that he wouldn’t rule out using military force to remove Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

He was re-elected in 2020 with the support of 23 of the OAS’ 34 member states.

Follow Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman

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