Speech by the Chair at the Inauguration of the 144th Period of Sessions



Washington, D.C. March 19, 2012

Ambassador Duly Brutus, Chair of the Permanent Council; Ambassador Albert Ramdin, Assistant Secretary General; Ambassador María Isabel Salvador, Chair of the Committee on Juridical and Political Affairs; Messieurs and Mesdames Permanent Representatives; Observers and Colleagues; Civil Society Representatives; Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is my honor to address you as Chair of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in this inaugural session of the 144th regular session. It is a pleasure for me to be accompanied by my colleagues Tracy Robinson, First Vice Chair; Felipe González, Second Vice Chair, as well as outgoing Chair Dinah Shelton and commissioners Rodrigo Escobar Gil, Rosa María Ortiz and Rose-Marie Antoine. We are also accompanied by Executive Secretary Santiago A. Canton, Assistant Executive Secretary Elizabeth Abi-Mershed, as well as other members of our Executive Secretariat; to all my thanks for their great professional caliber and their unwavering commitment to our institution.

I especially would like to express, in the name of the Commission, my deepest thanks and appreciation to outgoing President Dinah Shelton, for her dedicated and effective leadership of our work during the year that ends today. I would also like to thank my colleagues for the confidence they have deposited in me to carry out the delicate functions of the Presidency, and state my commitment to make every effort to faithfully undertake the high mission I have received; the support of all of them will be indispensable, as will that of the users of the inter-American system.

In its history, spanning more than fifty years, the Inter-American Commission has carried out its mandate to promote and protect fundamental rights in the Americas with independence and firmness. Over these five decades, in many cases the IACHR has been called upon to protect human rights in the extremely grave situations faced by the countries of the region. Today, democratic processes have been strengthened, and the massive and systematic violations of the past, to a considerable degree, have been left behind.

However, the effective validity of human rights for all persons, in every part of the hemisphere, even in a democracy, is far from a reality.

As one of its pending tasks, the Commission has observed that the work to defend and promote human rights, so vital for the construction and consolidation of any society that prides itself on being democratic, has faced serious obstacles in some states. Women, Indigenous leaders, trade unionists, defenders of the environment and of the rights of LGBTI people, students, and justice operators in the region have been seriously affected by assassination, assault, threats, harassment and monitoring, repression of peaceful social protest, as well as singling out by high authorities in order to discredit and stigmatize their work.

In view of this situation, in 2011 the IACHR created a Rapporteurship to monitor the situation of human rights defenders and justice operators in the hemisphere. It was also analyzed in the “Second Report on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders in the Americas,” approved by the Commission that year.

The Inter-American Commission has also verified the existence of serious factual and legal discrimination, faced by persons who are lesbians, gays, trans, bisexual, and intersex persons (LGTBI) in the countries of the region. It has received alarming information regarding murders, rapes, and threats against LGTBI persons, who also face important barriers to their access to health, employment, justice, and political participation. In order to bring proper attention to this situation, in its last regular session the Inter-American Commission decided to create a Unit for the Rights of LGTBI Persons.

The IACHR also noted over the last year the persistence of serious obstacles faced by women in the exercise of their right to live free from violence and discrimination, as well as the lack of adequate conditions to enjoy their right to health, and to gain access to education and employment, that would allow them to participate actively in society. Afrodescendant and Indigenous women, who have suffered historically of a triple discrimination based on their gender, poverty, and race, are especially at risk and have been kept from fully exercising their civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights.

Among its activities during 2011, the IACHR continued to follow the situation of Afrodescendant men and women in the Americas, within the framework of the “International Year for People of African Descent,” proclaimed by the United Nations. Despite the fact that the principle of non discrimination is one of the chief foundations of the inter-American system for the protection of human rights, Afrodescendant persons in the Americas continue to suffer from exclusion, racism and racial discrimination, and have been invisibilized, although they constitute a very important percentage of the population of some of the countries of the Americas.

Another topic considerably developed by the organs of the inter-American system is the protection of Indigenous peoples’ right to the property of their ancestral lands. The IACHR reiterates that the effective enjoyment of this right entails not only the protection of an economic unit but also of the human rights of a collectivity that bases its economic, social, and cultural development on its relationship with the land. Because of this, States have the obligation of prior consultation with the Indigenous and tribal peoples, and to guarantee their participation in decisions related to any measures that may affect their territories. Over the last year, the Inter-American Commission continued seeing the serious consequences of natural resource exploitation and the undertaking of large infrastructure projects on lands belonging to Indigenous and Afrodescendant peoples, in many cases putting their survival at risk.

It should also be mentioned that in 2011 the IACHR published a report on juvenile justice and human rights in which it describes the grave situation of children and adolescents who are in conflict with the law. This report highlights the fact that the different states in the region do not have legal frameworks that meet international standards in this area, nor adequate institutions to allow this human group to be reincorporated into society.

The Commission has also received, over the year, alarming reports of acts of violence and even torture and massacres committed against migrant persons in the hemisphere. In its studies, reports and decisions on OAS Member States, the IACHR reiterated its position that deprivation of liberty should be applied to undocumented migrant persons only in exceptional cases. The Inter-American Commission also notes with concern the systematic and progressive deterioration of working conditions of migrant persons, both documented and undocumented, in several states of the Organization.

The IACHR has stressed that the situation of persons deprived of liberty is a complex matter requiring the design and implementation of public policies in the medium and long term, as well as the adoption of immediate measures which are necessary to address current, urgent situations that gravely affect the fundamental human rights of the inmate population. These considerations were recently expressed in a report of the Inter-American Commission on the rights of persons deprived of liberty in the Americas.

The exercise of the right to freedom of expression continues to be limited by actions as serious as assassinations, assaults, and threats against journalists. States have the obligation of protecting journalists at special risk for practicing their profession, as well as of investigating, prosecuting, and punishing those responsible for these acts, not only to provide reparation to the victims and their next of kin, but also to prevent future acts of violence and intimidation. The IACHR’s Special Rapporteurship in this area has highlighted the existence of best practices over the past year, such as the enactment and execution of laws regarding access to information, but it has also had to point to serious problems with the use of criminal law to prosecute those who have made statements that have offended public officials.

Without a doubt, all these complex challenges must be met with serious and urgent measures, with the States and civil society working together, and through effective action, within the framework of its duties, on the part of the Inter-American Commission.

I would like to stress that the Commission highly values, as an important contribution of the States, the recommendations of the Special Working Group to Reflect on the Workings of the IACHR; they will be duly and exhaustively studied by the Inter-American Commission, which to that effect has created a Special Committee that will provide a response to the Permanent Council of our Organization. I am convinced that many of them can strengthen our mechanisms for protection.

Along these lines, and to strengthen the system’s operation, I would like to reiterate that the lack of human and financial resources is one of the chief problems we face when advancing in our study of petitions, cases, precautionary measures, general monitoring and other mandates given to the IACHR by the Member States. An important source of support that would truly benefit the institution would be cooperation through the Commission’s Strategic Plan, which was drafted for this purpose.

I would also like to highlight the creation, this year, of the Working Group on Friendly Settlements, whose members are specialized and trained attorneys who will be in charge of providing follow-up and facilitating decision processes, as well as assisting the Commissioners with petitions and cases in which the parties have decided to embark on this procedure.

Finally, I would like to highlight, as an important part of the hemispheric agenda for the protection of human rights, the promotion and development in the States of effective legislation on cooperation with the inter-American system and for the implementation of its decisions, as well as for ensuring that domestic judges follow conventional obligations. Actions such as these also truly strengthen the inter-American system.

Several of these topics and issues will be considered and debated over the following weeks within hearings, work meetings, discussion of petitions, cases, and precautionary measures, and general and thematic reports.

Ladies and gentlemen, as we all well know, the autonomy of the Inter-American Commission is a basic premise of the system. The fact that, for the first time in our history, there is a majority of women members on the Inter-American Commission is encouraging and no doubt beneficial for the equality of persons in the Americas. The inhabitants of our region are observing our actions and they are waiting for us to make their legitimate expectation of fully enjoying their human rights, in systems where justice and democracy prevail, a reality. I call for us to continue working together within the framework of our respective functions and responsibilities to satisfy these aspirations with ever greater dedication, energy, and creativity.

Thank you very much.