Speech by the Chair at the Inauguration of the 141st Sessions

Address by the Chair of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Dinah Shelton, at the Inaugural Ceremony of the 141st Regular Session of the IACHR

Washington, D.C., March 21, 2011


Mr. Chair of the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States;

Distinguished permanent representatives of the member states,

Distinguished observers and colleagues;

Representatives of civil society;

Ladies and gentlemen:

It is an honor for me to address you as the incoming Chair of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights at this inaugural ceremony of the Commission’s 141st Regular Session. I am delighted to be joined here by my colleagues Mr. Felipe Gonzales, outgoing chair of the Commission; Mr. Jose de Jesus Orozco, First Vice-Chair; Mr. Rodrigo Escobar Gil, Second Vice-Chair; and Commission members Luz Patricia Mejia Guerrero, Paolo Sergio Pinheiro, and Maria Silvia Guillén. Also present with us are Mr. Santiago Canton, Executive Secretary; Ms. Elizabeth Abi-Mershed, Assistant Executive Secretary, and other members of our excellent and hard-working secretariat. I know that everyone would like to acknowledge and thank our outgoing chair, Felipe Gonzalez, for his wise and purposeful leadership and careful direction.

As the Inter-American Human Rights Commission commences its second half-century, we can note that over the first five decades of its existence, it has achieved significant progress, in cooperation with other organs of the OAS, in strengthening the effective exercise of human rights in the region and beyond. As someone who worked closely with the European system in its early days, and has been involved in developing the work of both the African and ASEAN human rights commissions, I can attest to the global impact of the OAS’s contributions to and leadership in the field of human rights. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights routinely cites with approval the decisions of the Inter-American Commission and Court. Within its first six months, the ASEAN Inter-Governmental Commission on Human Rights traveled to Washington D.C. to meet with the IACHR to discuss its future work and to gather inspiration from developments in this region. In sum, the OAS can be justly proud of its contributions to the origin of and constant evolution towards effective promotion and protection of human rights.

Among recent successes, we can point to the enhanced participation and cooperation of the member states in the various activities of the Commission, including its hearings, on site missions, development of reports, and case processing. The high level of the delegations who engage with the Commission during its sessions is not only rewarding, but essential to the effectiveness of the system. The constructive dialogues that occur facilitate the resolution of matters, often achieving friendly settlement of cases consistent with the enjoyment of human rights, and contribute to raising standards throughout the hemisphere.

Through its recommendations in cases and reports, the IACHR has inspired the adoption of new laws and the implementation of public policies that ensure enhanced respect for the human rights of vulnerable populations, including indigenous peoples, workers, migrants, human rights defenders, women, children and persons of African descent. During the past year, the Commission has released reports on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples' Rights over their Ancestral Lands and Natural Resources; on Immigration in the United States: Detention and Due Process, on Maternal Health and on Citizen Security and Human Rights, among others. Through these reports, its rapporteurships and case processing, the IACHR has inspired improvements in the rights of vulnerable populations, as well as greater freedom of expression and judicial guarantees. The Commission’s efforts in all of these areas are directed not only to affording redress to victims of human rights violations, but to preventing future violations, helping to build democratic systems in which the rule of law and human rights are equally ensured.

The Citizen Security report highlights the difficulties faced by states in responding to organized violence and crime, yet it is based on the reality that States need not choose between security and respect for human rights. Both can and must be achieved. As the report highlights, citizen security must be regarded as a public policy, whose purpose is to ensure that human rights are respected in law and in practice, as well as in the conduct of state institutions and agents, through a comprehensive approach to the causes of crime and violence. A human rights perspective enables the issues of crime and violence, and their impact in citizen security, to be tackled through the strengthening of democratic participation and the implementation of policies focused on the protection of the individual. The IACHR recommends that all member States generate the necessary institutional capacity within the public sector to carry out the recommended measures, while making available adequate human, technical, and economic resources. It recommends with particular strength the need to ensure the special standards of protection for those persons or groups that are particularly vulnerable to violence and crime, such as children and women.

While the autonomy of the IACHR is a central and foundational premise of the system, the work of the Commission depends on the active participation of member states and civil society. Last Thursday members of the Commission and the Court joined member states in the on-going dialogue taking place through the CAJP on strengthening the Inter-American human rights system. We look forward to continuing this process and engaging in fruitful exchanges with the member states about their concerns and aspirations in respect to the Commission’s mandate and functions. As part of this process the IACHR continues to examine its rules and regulations with a view to improvements to ensure an open and transparent system in which states and civil society can be engaged.

To facilitate greater participation by civil society, essential to our functioning, we are pleased that the Victim Assistance Fund has been inaugurated. The IACHR adopted its rules for the Legal Assistance Fund and they entered into force on March 1st of this year. The rules allow any person who has a case that has been declared admissible by the Commission (or in regard to which the IACHR has decided to join admissibility and merits) to seek resources from the Fund to defray the expenses of gathering and sending documentary evidence, or the appearance of the alleged victim, witnesses of experts in hearings held by the Commission. While the creation of this Fund is to be celebrated, its effective functioning will depend on contributions actually arriving from member states, which we hope will occur.

A priority during the coming year will be to develop the proposed Friendly Settlement Group for the resolution of cases consistent with respect for the human rights at issue. The Commission will analyze previous friendly settlement experiences to enhance its capability to support and follow up on friendly settlements. We will take the opportunity to review lessons learned and best practices. At present, reaching a friendly settlement requires considerable time on the part of the Commissioners and officials from the Executive Secretariat. The proposed Friendly Settlement Group, consisting of specialized trained lawyers, will be in charge of tracking and facilitating the process and assisting the Commissioners with those petitions and cases where the parties have decided to embark upon this procedure.

Recently, the IACHR completed and adopted a Strategic Plan that maps out the priorities and goals for the coming years. The Plan is results-oriented and ensures accountability for the fulfillment of its goals. The recent meeting in Ottawa, Canada, based on the Commission’s Strategic Plan, was gratifying and gives rise to optimism that the resources necessary will be forthcoming, to enable the Commission to execute fully and efficiently the functions and mandates conferred upon it. One of the main challenges in recent years has been the lack of sufficient human and financial resources to keep pace with the volume of petitions, cases, precautionary measures, general monitoring, and other mandates conferred on the IACHR by the OAS member states. Reliance on external funding has been a hallmark of the Commission and there is hope that this will be less of a need in the future.

Undeniably, the system has encountered difficulties and obstacles, some of which have been resolved and others of which persist and demand continued or even priority attention. Challenges to the functioning of the Commission remain. As one representative mentioned during Thursday’s dialogue “justice delayed is justice denied.” The Commission is committed to eliminating the backlog of pending cases in a timely manner and ensuring that new submissions are processed quickly and efficiently. But if justice delayed is justice denied, it is equally true that a rush to judgment can lead to substantive and procedural errors. It is critical that the Commission proceed deliberately, to ensure that the highest standards are maintained in fact-finding and legal analysis. Its decisions must be and must be seen to be impartial, credible and legitimate. To fulfill the qualitative and quantitative demands is both a challenge and a commitment.

A very significant priority involves ensuring appropriate implementation of recommendations of the Commission and judgments of the Court. There has been a progressive trend in recent years respecting compliance with decisions awarding reparations to victims, but the lack of investigation, prosecution and punishment of those responsible for the most serious human rights abuses remains a matter of concern. States Parties to the American Convention have undertaken the obligation to respect and ensure all the rights enshrined in the Convention and are responsible for organizing their internal governance structures and adopting the necessary legislative and regulatory reforms to comply with this obligation. The IACHR depends on the OAS political bodies as the collective guarantors of compliance.

As we well know, compliance is not only a matter of political will, but it can also be a matter of capacity. We have seen the devastating impact of natural disasters and the need for regional solidarity and assistance to address the complex issues associated in particular with the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights. More generally, we are seeing the necessity of ensuring respect for human rights in the process of economic development, where too often major projects and extractive industries operate without the controls necessary to avoid significant human rights violations. The report on Indigenous Land and Resource Rights examines some of the problems that have arisen and, based on inter-American human rights standards, recommends measures to ensure that development projects proceed consistent with human rights standards and domestic law.

Through the Commission’s hearings and cases, we have identified a number of issues that have not received the attention they deserve, with the result that particularly vulnerable groups have suffered marginalization and exclusion, including those suffering from mental and physical disabilities, ethnic, racial and sexual minorities, and the rural poor. In particular, widespread discrimination and harassment of individuals based on their sexual identity and orientation have been brought to our attention as a critical problem that we must address in the immediate future.

While these new issues demand attention, we must continue to monitor and respond to the chronic problems of strengthening fragile democratic institutions, ensuring free and fair elections, freedom of expression and assembly, civilian control of the military, and functioning independent judicial systems. Access to justice and redressing human rights at the domestic level is critical to ensuring that the system does not collapse from a rising caseload.

Though experience the IACHR has recognized the fundamental importance of on site visits. The willingness of member states to invite the Commission to see firsthand conditions in their territories, to hear the accounts of individuals in government as well as in civil society, and to observe the efforts being made to overcome human rights problems, including the obstacles, faced, is critical to the work of the Commission. In this respect, the IACHR is particularly grateful to the increasing number of governments who have announced open door policies. We encourage other government to consider adopting this attitude towards this essential part of IACHR practice.

Two issues remain to be mentioned. First, the importance of continuing to advance towards universality of the system, to encourage member states to ratify inter-American human rights treaties and ensure their effective implementation. The Commission is ready to assist in any way that will contribute to achieving this goal. Second, despite the priority that must be given to monitoring and enforcing existing norms, there are issues that can benefit from further elaboration. In this sense, the IACHR will continue to collaborate with the Working Groups of the OAS Permanent Council that are engaged in preparing a Draft Inter-American Convention against Racism and All forms of Discrimination and Intolerance and a Draft American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The challenges to the system should not be minimized, but neither should the progress that has been achieved over the past five decades since the Commission was created. We cannot be satisfied with partial success, however, and the IACHR remains dedicated to supporting the member states as they fulfill their responsibilities to respect and ensure the human rights of all persons. The Commission will continue to comply with its mandate to promote and protect human rights in the region, open and willing to improve its procedures and legal analysis to meet the expectations of all the system’s stakeholders, especially those of the victims who have suffered violations of their human rights.

Thank you very much.