Speech by Commissioner Rose-Marie Belle Antoine, President of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, at the close of its 154th Sessions.
Washington, D.C., March 27, 2015
Amb. Niermala Badrising, President of the Permanent Council; Amb. Albert Ramdin, Assistant Secretary General; Amb. Hugo de Zela, Chief of Staff; Permanent and Alternate Representatives of Member States; Permanent Observers; Representatives of civil society organizations; Members of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights; Executive Secretary and Assistant Executive Secretary of the Commission, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, Secretariat staff, fellows and interns; Ladies and gentlemen:
I am very pleased to welcome you to this closing ceremony of the 154th Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Sessions, which began on March 13th, 2015. With me today are my colleagues James Cavallaro, First Vice President; José de Jesús Orozco, Second Vice President; and Commissioners Felipe Gonzalez, Tracy Robinson and Rosa María Ortiz. To them I express my deep gratitude for entrusting me with the position of President, which I hope to honor in the great tradition of this noble institution; and to Commissioner Robinson, my recognition for her sterling leadership and work during her mandate as President during the past year.
Having held very successful meetings with you earlier this week, with Representatives of Member States of SICA, CARICOM, ALADI, Canada and the United States, you are already aware of the key logistical developments at the Commission, such as the reduction of case backlog, innovative restructuring of the Executive Secretariat to increase efficiency; situation of the ESCR Unit; our continuing financial crisis and requests for inputs from countries for the new Strategic Plan. The Commission and the Member States also talked about recent key developments, such as reports, visits, intersections and synergies with other international organizations.
We were exceedingly grateful for these valuable instances of dialogue. We believe that such spaces create important opportunities to continue to strengthen the Inter-American Human Rights system together, within our respective mandates and responsibilities. We also recognize in our generous attendance true signs of good faith and genuine collaboration towards our mutual purpose and we hope to build on this.
The Commission also held a meeting with numerous representatives of civil society and launched our report on “The Right to Truth in the Americas”. We held a roundtable discussion with State institutions regarding public policies designed to promote and protect the rights of children and adolescents in the area of freedom of expression and the media.
The agenda of the sessions that conclude today has been very intense. We held 55 hearings on a wide range of issues, as well as 29 working meetings to facilitate implementation of precautionary measures, compliance with recommendations, and friendly settlement procedures. Significantly, 20 of these 29 working meetings were on friendly settlements, underscoring the Commission’s commitment to consensus building. The IACHR values and indeed encourages the measures adopted by States and their interaction with petitioners to work jointly for compliance with recommendations and the effective implementation of precautionary measures.
Our public hearings involved a diverse number of the several human rights matters, challenges and problems currently affecting the Americas. Matters addressed during the 55 hearings included the impact of business and extractive industries on human rights, freedom of expression, rights to information, racism and structural discrimination, social protest, judicial independence, LGBTI rights, rights of women, Afro-descendants, children, indigenous peoples, threats to human rights defenders and rights for persons with disabilities.
Intriguingly, we observe that the problems that confront us resonate equally across the region, affecting large and small, rich and poor nations alike, another dimension to universalism, and a powerful argument for the need for a universal system to address these realities.
There were also reasons for optimism, on hearing of the examples of advances and good practices in certain areas.
There were too, a number of important firsts:
For the first time, the US requested a hearing, on the subject of Criminal Justice and Race in the USA, as a follow up to hearings we have initiated before with a view to a Report. This added to the total of three hearings which were held at the request of Member States.
We also carried out four hearings with respect to CARICOM Member States, and one regarding the death penalty in the Caribbean. This was a record number for the sub region.
The Commission also served as intermediary for the establishment of an innovative independent working group to investigate disappearances of students in Mexico and was invited by Chile to collaborate on a Business and Human Rights initiative.
In addition, for the first time in significant ways, the Commission’s attention was drawn to issues of cross border jurisdiction and extraterritoriality. We saw this in the issue of migrant children from several countries entering a single Member state. So too, in the increasingly important issue of the responsibility of countries of origin of transnational companies accused of human rights violations operating in other member states. Since we last met in these hallowed halls, the Commission has held hearings on this issue, and Canada, a country of origin, has followed up directly after these hearings, announcing strengthened corporate responsibility mechanisms and a new policy to cease business with its companies that do not respect these boundaries. This is a new direction that we warmly welcome.
Another first was that 5 Catholic bishops joined the ranks of the many courageous human rights defenders who come before us in every session, seeking justice for victims whose rights were violated, in this case, as a result of the activities of such companies.
Similarly, the Commission in another hearing involving Guantanamo Bay, was confronted with fully uniformed army Lieutenants, sitting before us in the petitioners benches. But however outfitted, whether in army uniform, priestly frock, indigenous garb or business suit, there was unity in the message – they sought the attention of you, the states, and the intervention and solace from a Commission dedicated to bringing states and victims together to facilitate peaceful resolutions.
All of the various issues raised in our hearings and meetings were important, but some cause us to reflect on broad, even philosophical concerns:
The ideological conflicts with respect to development goals are readily apparent in the region. Development is a lofty goal, but the several voices speaking of the mega projects that target natural resources and sometimes impact negatively on the rights of already marginalized and vulnerable peoples, especially indigenous peoples and Afrodescendants, including their rights to property, livelihoods, health and even life, under threat when they seek to protest, compel us to ask you to reflect on whether the price of progress is simply too high? These are not mere abstract questions either, since the Commission has already been confronted with tangible concerns such as the Right to water, essential to the survival of the planet, already affecting many communities across the region.
We notice too the artificiality of domestic borders as issues of statelessness and migrants it’s worsen.
We have launched Reports to interrogate these issues more closely.
Inherent Tensions and Criticisms
But not everything was “feel good”. We continue to receive criticisms on some issues and some disengagement. In this session, as before, we have been asked about this. Being unpopular is never easy, but it is a truism that a human rights System encompasses an inherent antagonism? It embodies an inbuilt tension between any human rights tribunal and states. This is self-evident, given that the Commission, like any human rights body, stands as the bulwark between the ordinary individual, rendered vulnerable as against the powerful state.
Recall that States are uniquely, both the creators or guarantors of rights and the violators of rights. So, while the Commission does not naively nor deliberately fail to appreciate the social, political and economic realities of the region, we understand that International human rights law places the burden of responsibility squarely on states. Therefore, it falls on independent, neutral arbiters like the Commission to uphold that burden, without displacing objectivity.
Yes, there may be room to reconsider, in jurisprudential analysis, thresholds of admissibility and exceptions to exhaustion of remedies rules and other legal technicalities, but it does not displace the central tenets of responsibility in allegations of human rights. It is the mighty state that must make itself accountable to each citizen, and increasingly, the non-national and even the migrant.
Aware of socio-political Realities
The Commission recognizes that political administrations are transient but the geopolitical state is not. As such, many administrations are caught up attempting to rectify an inglorious past for which their own administrations are not responsible and must feel, understandably, under siege for having to confront and rectify these inherited wrongs. Working with such States in non-confrontational, non-judgmental ways, but without sacrificing entrenched principles of reparation is a legitimate and satisfactory way to achieve accountability and confront the skeletons of the past in the required exercise of state responsibility.
We remain responsive to the needs of the regional human rights system and your suggestions as to how best to advance its cause. The increasing portfolios and engagements of the Commission is evidence of the enduring credibility of a human rights system that you have created and that you have sustained.
A significant example is that the Commission is deepening its engagement on the topic of economic, social and cultural rights in a cross-cutting way through its various mechanisms, reflecting an interest expressed both by OAS Member States and other actors of the system. The Specialised Unit on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR Unit) has been leading this important work and spearheading the initiative to establish a Special Rapporteur on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. To this end, the Commission opened a special fund to raise financial resources to enable the creation of this Special Rapporteurship, inviting OAS Member States to make voluntary contributions to achieve this objective. We repeat that invitation.
Finally, I would like to recognize all of the persons who contribute to our work of protection and promotion of human rights: my Commissioner colleagues, the authorities and staff of the Executive Secretariat, and especially the interns who volunteer their time and considerable energy, and help us promote our system by sharing their experience afterward; State authorities and representatives; and petitioners who represent individual victims that put their faith in us. We hope that we may continue to contribute to make the system stronger for the protection of all the women, men and children who inhabit this region.
I would like to refer specially to Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza. Even though this is not yet a goodbye, it is the last session of the Commission under his administration, so I take the opportunity to recognize the important cooperation with Secretary General Insulza. Specifically, I would like to underscore his strong statements in defense of the autonomy of the IACHR as part of the follow-up to the most recent strengthening process, as well as the budgetary and administrative support which was vital for our activities.
This year four Commissioners, including myself, will depart from the Commission. On behalf of my colleagues, Dr. Felipe Gonzalez, Ms. Tracy Robinson, Ms. Rosa Maria Ortiz and myself, I thank you for giving us this opportunity to serve you and the region in this noble cause to which we are all deeply committed: the enhancement of human rights in the pursuit of justice, equality and freedom for all of our peoples.
I Thank You for your time and attention.