Address by the Chair of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, José de Jesús Orozco Henríquez, at the Presentation of the IACHR Annual Report 2011 to the Committee on Juridical and Political Affairs of the OAS
Washington, D.C., April 9, 2012
Honorable Madam Chair of the Inter-American Committee on Juridical and Political Affairs: Distinguished Representatives of the Member States: Distinguished Representatives of the Permanent Observer States: Distinguished Representatives of Civil Society Organizations: Ladies and Gentlemen:
As its President, I am honored to present the 2011 Annual Report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which is being submitted to this Committee and, through it, to the Permanent Council. Here with me today is the Commission’s Executive Secretary, Mr. Santiago Canton, its Deputy Executive Secretary, Elizabeth Abi-Mershed, and staff members of the Executive Secretariat.
The report I am presenting to you was prepared in accordance with the guidelines established by the General Assembly and Article 58 of the Commission’s Rules of Procedure, and then approved by the Commission at the close of 2011. The activities recounted in this report were for the most part conducted under the presidency of Commissioner Dinah Shelton, whose able leadership I am grateful for and applaud. Speaking on the Commission’s behalf, I would also like to thank Commissioners María Silvia Guillén and Luz Patricia Mejía for the invaluable contributions they made during their terms at the Commission, which ended in 2011. The IACHR would also like to thank Commissioner Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, who left the Commission in 2011 after having served it since 2004.
The Commission’s activities in 2011 included, among others, the following: the celebration of three period of sessions; receiving and registering over 1600 petitions; and in connection to these, approving 67 admissibility reports, 11 inadmissibility reports, eight friendly settlement reports, 54 reports in which it decided to close the record on a case, 25 merits reports. It also published five merits reports and filed 23 applications with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. In 2011, the Commission considered and decided over 400 requests seeking precautionary measures and held 91 hearings and 58 working meetings. In their capacity as country or thematic rapporteurs, the Commission members conducted more than 30 working visits and visits to advance the cause of human rights. The Commission issued 138 press releases and held five seminars and training courses, as well as a wide range of promotional activities. This illustrates the enormous diversity and the sheer number of demands made of the Commission and the various ways it protects and promotes human rights in the hemisphere.
Chapter I of the Commission’s report recounts the significant progress the member states have made through Legislative Reforms. Particular mention should be made of the following: Uruguay’s enactment of a law eliminating the statute of limitations for crimes committed under the dictatorship in that country; Peru’s enactment of the law requiring prior consultation with indigenous peoples; the reform in Mexico in which the inclusion of human rights recognized in international treaties were integrated to the constitution; and Colombia’s issuance of a decree under which protective measures are henceforth to be designed to feature a differentiated approach that factors in age, ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual orientation and urban or rural provenance.
In the area of Public Policy, the Commission took note of security programs implemented in Haiti and was gratified by the meaningful public acknowledgements of responsibility and apologies made by Colombia, El Salvador and Mexico.
Finally, on the subject of Access to Justice, the Commission welcomed the convictions delivered against perpetrators of egregious and systematic human rights abuses committed under the dictatorial regimes in Argentina, Chile, Guatemala and Peru. The Commission was also gratified by Mexico’s decision to require all judges to ensure the “conventionality control”.
Despite these important advances and others mentioned elsewhere in the Report, the Commission must highlight the challenges that still obstruct the full enjoyment and exercise of human rights by persons subject to the member states’ jurisdiction. It observed, for example, that women continue to encounter severe obstacles to their right to live free of violence and discrimination and pointed to the particularly difficult predicament of Afro-descendant and indigenous women, who have historically been victims of discrimination on three fronts: gender, poverty and race. In connection with this subject, in 2011 the IACHR published a report titled the Political Participation of Women in the Americas, and adopted four other reports as well: Work, Education and Resources of Women: the Road to Equality in Guaranteeing Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; Access to Information on Reproductive Health from a Human Rights Perspective; Legal Standards related to Gender Equality and Women’s Rights in the Inter-American Human Rights System: Development and Application, and Access to Justice for Women Victims of Sexual Violence in Mesoamerica.
Although the United Nations declared 2011 to be the “International Year for People of African Descent”, the latter continue to experience exclusion and discrimination. In the course of their work, the Commission and its Rapporteurship on the Rights of Afro-Descendants and against Racial Discrimination have found that persons of African descent routinely live in the poorest areas with the least infrastructure, and are more exposed to crime and violence. These and other Commission findings were included in its report on The Situation of People of African Descent in the Americas, which features important recommendations on effective measures the States should take to remedy this situation.
Another issue that the organs of the inter-American system have studied at length is the protection of tribal and indigenous peoples’ rights over their ancestral lands. Effective enjoyment of their right to property means protecting not just the economic unit, but also the human rights of an entire community whose economic, social and cultural development is a function of its intimate relationship to the land. States, therefore, have an obligation to consult indigenous and tribal peoples before permitting any exploitation of resources on their ancestral territories, and to ensure their involvement in decisions pertaining to measures affecting their territories. In 2011, the IACHR published the report on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples’ Rights over Their Ancestral Lands and Natural Resources, in which it singled out specific problems, guidelines and best practices with a view to improving the exercise and enjoyment of human rights by the indigenous and tribal peoples of the Americas.
In 2011, the IACHR published its Report on Juvenile Justice and Human Rights in the Americas, which captures the serious dilemma of children and adolescents in conflict with the law. In a number of States within the region, the body of laws protecting these children and adolescents is not commensurate with international standards; furthermore, those states do not have suitable institutions enabling children and adolescents in conflict with the law to successfully rejoin society. The IACHR also expressed its concern at the fact that anti-terrorist laws are enforced against children and adolescents, and urged the States to fully respect their rights.
The Commission was equally attentive to the situation of immigrants in the hemisphere, particularly given the alarming complaints of acts of violence committed against immigrants in 2011. It again highlighted its position that in the case of undocumented migrants, deprivation of liberty should only be used in exceptional cases. In 2011, the Commission published its Report on Immigration in the United States, in which it expressed its concern over the increasing number of undocumented migrants being held in detention, and formulated specific recommendations on measures this member state should take to ensure that the internationally recognized rights of these persons are fully respected and observed.
In December 2011, the IACHR approved its Report on the Rights of Persons Deprived of Liberty in the Americas, which highlights the fundamental importance of medium- and long-term public policies and immediate measures to correct those situations that constitute serious violations of the prison population’s basic human rights. The Commission hopes that its report will serve its intended purpose, which is to assist the member states in their compliance with their international obligations and to serve as a useful tool to those institutions and organizations dedicated to promoting and defending the rights of persons deprived of liberty.
The States’ principal challenges with respect to freedom of expression in 2011 continue to include assassinations, assaults and threats against journalists. States have an obligation to protect journalists, whose profession exposes them to heightened risks. They also have an obligation to investigate, prosecute and punish those responsible for murders, assaults and threats against journalists, not only in order to redress the victims and their families, but also to prevent future acts of violence and intimidation. Salient among the issues the Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression raised in 2011 was its alarm at the fact that criminal penalties were being enforced against those who made statements offensive to public officials. On the other hand, it applauded such best practices as the enactment and application of freedom-of-information laws. In recent years the Commission has observed the serious de facto and de jure discrimination that lesbian, gay, trans, bisexual and intersex persons experience in the countries of the region. The IACHR has received reports of crimes such as murders, rapes and threats, and of the devastating discrimination and social exclusion that is the lot of broad cross-sections of sexually diverse people. At its 143rd period of session, the Commission decided to create a unit dedicated to the rights of sexually diverse persons and has embarked upon the task of preparing a hemispheric report on the subject.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
Some of those mentioned here are asserting their individual rights; others are demanding observance of the rights of many other persons. What they all have in common, however, is that by promoting or striving for recognition of basic rights, they are all human rights defenders and as such essential pillars upon which stronger and more secure democracies rest. Regrettably, human rights defenders also fall victim to murder and assault; many of them are singled out by the authorities who discredit and stigmatize their work; they find themselves facing baseless criminal charges; their sources of funding are restricted, and no adequate and effective mechanisms are in place to protect them. To underscore the need to address this problem, in 2011 the Commission decided to transform its Human Rights Defenders Unit into a Rapporteurship of Human Rights Defenders. I was honored to be named its Rapporteur.
The Commission also approved its Second Report on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders in the Americas, in which it provides updated information on the subject and the applicable standards of international law. In that report, it concluded that while some States had gone to considerable effort to comply with the recommendations made in the Commission’s first report, published in 2006, the obstacles pointed out in that first report persisted and in some cases had become even worse. It also observed that the techniques used to impede, obstruct and deter the mission of defending and promoting human rights have become more and more sophisticated.
Chapter II of the Annual Report contains a summary of the most relevant activities conducted in 2011, and singles out the working visits and activities the Commissioners conducted in Argentina, Belize, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, the United States, Guatemala, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Dominican Republic, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, and Uruguay. In 2011, the Commission also adopted its Report on the situation of human rights in Jamaica, which was issued as a result of the in loco visit that it made to that country. Many other States in the region also extended invitations for visits, which the Commission has not yet been able to make. The Commission is grateful to the member states that have invited it to visit and whose invitations still stand. These visits serve a vital function in the Commission’s mission of promoting and protecting human rights in the hemisphere.
As you know, the system of individual petitions and cases is an essential part of the Commission’s work. The petition and case system serves a number of purposes: ensuring that serious violations of human rights are redressed; correcting systemic problems in public policy and legislation, and promoting meaningful change in the hemisphere’s understanding of the content and scope of human rights.
Chapter III of the Report contains the Commission’s decisions on complaints of human rights violations in the member states. This chapter features very detailed statistics whose purpose is to provide a general overview of the Commission’s various activities, and reflects all the findings that the IACHR has decided to prioritize in its strategic planning.
Section C is in two parts: the first contains a description of the precautionary measures that, pursuant to Article 25 of its Rules of Procedure, the IACHR either granted or extended in 2011 in relation to various member states. This section contains a detailed account of the history of precautionary measures, their legal framework and the criteria that the IACHR applies when considering requests seeking precautionary measures.
Section C.2 includes all the reports on which the Commission, during the period covered by this report, adopted a decision on admissibility, inadmissibility, merits, friendly settlement, or to archive a case. This section contains a total of 165 reports that include 67 cases found admissible; 11 reports on petitions found inadmissible; 8 reports on friendly settlements; 54 decisions to archive a case, and 25 reports on the merits.
Section D includes an analysis of the States’ compliance with the recommendations contained in the reports on individual cases published in the Annual Reports since 2000, in keeping with Article 47 of the Commission’s Rules of Procedure. For the states, compliance with the Commission’s decisions and, in a broader sense, adoption of all the measures necessary to give effect to their commitments in the area of human rights, are fundamental and ineluctable obligations.
The IACHR believes that this statistical data is an accurate, detailed accounting of the performance of the Individual Petition and Case System and its results. As for the duration of the process, in 2007, for example, the initial evaluation of a petition took an average of 50.2 months; in 2008, the average was 45.2 months; in 2009, 39.7 months, and in 2010 36.2 months. Today, the Commission’s initial evaluation process takes an average of 27 months. This shortened initial evaluation period is the product of a deliberate strategy that prioritizes the first reply that a petitioner receives concerning his/her complaint, given the importance of the Commission’s duty to bring to the attention of the concerned state any possible prima facie violations of rights that it observes. That initial reply is the first real opportunity to bring about a resolution of the matter, even through the friendly settlement process.
We are constantly endeavoring to secure the necessary resources. Naturally, the IACHR is grateful for the contributions made during 2011, particularly those earmarked to support its Strategic Plan. The following OAS member states made contributions to the IACHR: Argentina, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, United States and Mexico. The following Permanent Observers also made contributions: Azerbaijan, Denmark, Spain, Finland, France, Greece, the Netherlands, Ireland and Switzerland. The Commission is also deeply appreciative of the contributions received from the United Nations Population Fund, the Swedish Foundation for Human Rights, the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), Save the Children/Sweden and the University of Notre Dame.
Chapter IV of the 2011 Annual Report contains a summary of the history, legal framework and method applied in preparing this chapter and a specific examination of the human rights situation in Colombia, Cuba, Honduras and Venezuela. Before approving this annual report, the Commission engaged in discussions on how best to improve the method used to prepare this chapter. That process is still ongoing in the Commission’s deliberations and has been nurtured by the observations and suggestions that the States and civil society have offered. Specifically, this chapter is now devoting more attention to the situation of civil and political rights; the progress made toward ensuring economic, social and cultural rights; the situation of groups that are at particular risk or are targets of discrimination; the ratification of inter-American instruments; the best practices the States have adopted to protect persons at risk, and other gauges that are applied equally to the States examined in this chapter.
Based on the criteria the IACHR adopted in 1997 to identify states whose human rights practices merit special attention, the Commission concluded that the human rights situation in Colombia fit under Category 5, which concerns the persistence of circumstantial or structural situations which for various reasons have a serious and grave effect on the enjoyment and exercise of the fundamental human rights enshrined in the American Convention on Human Rights.
The IACHR is aware of the complex situation that Colombia faces after five decades of violence, its impact on the civilian population, and the effect that the drug-trafficking business continues to have on the violence and on the State’s efforts to fight this phenomenon. Yet, the violations of human rights in Colombia can be traced both to its unresolved past and to existing structural problems and circumstances that seriously affect the exercise and enjoyment of human rights. The IACHR observes that the serious problem of internal displacement continues and that despite efforts to dismantle the armed Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (“AUC”) [United Self-Defense Units of Colombia], illegal armed groups continue to be involved in acts of harassment and violence that take a particularly heavy toll on the specific sectors of the population, peoples, groups and persons who have historically been subjected to discrimination or that are especially vulnerable; examples include women, children, and human rights defenders.
The IACHR has observed that Colombia has undertaken a number of legislative, administrative and judicial measures in efforts to correct the very serious human rights violations that can be traced, for example, to the paramilitary movement and illegal intelligence activities. Those measures, however, are still neither entirely effective nor completely in keeping with inter-American standards. In its 2011 Report, the IACHR notes, for example, that it continues to receive complaints alleging the use of the military justice system to prosecute cases of human rights violations, and that problems obstructing access to intelligence records persist. It also notes that six years after enactment of the Justice and Peace Law, only one court verdict has become final. Furthermore, criminal groups may be operating in collusion with certain public officials or with their tolerance and acquiescence, and the gradual evolution of these groups into emerging structures of violence continues to take a serious toll on Colombian society, despite the State’s efforts to eliminate those groups.
The Commission also observes that there has been a reduction in information received regarding extrajudicial executions, known as “false positives”. However, few members of law enforcement have been convicted of extrajudicial executions. It is vital that investigations be conducted promptly and that measures are taken to stop the harassment of and attempts made against victims who file complaints of violations of and their family members’ human rights.
The challenges notwithstanding, the Colombian State has undertaken noteworthy efforts to bring peace by demobilizing armed actors and providing protection for its citizens. One such effort was the June 10, 2011 adoption of Law 1448, “by which measures are ordered for attention, assistance, and integral reparations to the victims of the internal armed conflict, and other provisions are issued,” also called the “Law on Victims and Restitution of Lands.”
The position of the IACHR has always been that the Cuban State “is juridically answerable to the Inter-American Commission in matters that concern human rights” since “the Cuban State is party to the international instruments initially established in the American hemisphere to protect human rights” and because Resolution VI of the Eighth Meeting of Consultation “excluded the present Government of Cuba, not the State, from participating in the Inter -American system.”
Using the criteria that the IACHR developed in 1997, the Commission has concluded that the human rights situation in Cuba falls under criteria one and five, in that the political rights recognized in the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man are not respected, and structural problems persist that seriously affect the enjoyment and exercise of the fundamental rights recognized in the American Declaration.
The restrictions on political rights, on the right to freedom of association, freedom of expression, freedom of thought, the lack of elections, the lack of an independent judicial branch and restrictions on freedom of movement have, over the decades, become permanent fixtures in the systematic violation of the Cuban people’s human rights. In 2011, the information available suggests that the general human rights situation has not changed. The same human rights violations mentioned above persist, as do severe repression of women, restrictions on human rights defenders, repression of social protest, and laws and practices that violate the rights of children and adolescents.
The Commission has been particularly attentive in monitoring the human rights situation in Honduras. In its reports, it has raised a number of structural issues in the areas of justice, security, marginalization and discrimination that for decades have adversely affected the human rights of the Honduran people and have worsened since the 2009 coup d’état.
In 2011, the Commission continued to observe the human rights situation in Honduras, focusing on the consequences of the 2009 coup d’état. The available information reveals that various types of human rights violations have occurred since the 2009 coup d’état and have taken a heavy toll on the Honduran people; in some cases, the effects or repercussions of those violations still linger. Consequently, after evaluating the situation, at its 143rd period of session the Commission decided to include the country in Chapter IV of its Annual Report, because in its view, it qualifies for inclusion based on criteria three and five. Criterion three refers to massive and grave violations of the human rights guaranteed in the American Convention, the American Declaration, or other applicable human rights instruments; criterion five refers to temporary or structural situations that may be present in member states confronted, for one reason or another, with situations that seriously affect the enjoyment of fundamental rights enshrined in the American Convention or the American Declaration.
In the report, the IACHR recounts the activities conducted in 2011 in connection with the situation in Honduras and examines the human rights situation in that country, addressing specific issues, among them access to justice and prison conditions.
The IACHR decided to include Venezuela in Chapter IV of its 2011 Annual Report because in its view, the situation in Venezuela fits within criterion five which, as previously stated, concerns structural or temporary situations that may appear in member states confronted, for various reasons, with situations that seriously affect the enjoyment of fundamental rights enshrined in the American Convention.
First, the Commission has identified structural situations, such as changes in the law that imply legal and administrative restrictions that affect the exercise and enjoyment of human rights in Venezuela. The Commission reports, for example, on laws adopted under the “Law authorizing the President of the Republic to issue decrees with the rank, value and force of law, on the subject matters delegated to him”, known as the “Enabling Law.” In its previous reports on Venezuela, the Commission repeatedly pointed to structural issues such as the practice of appointing provisional, temporary or interim judges and prosecutors, which weakens the judicial branch and strips it of its Independence and impartiality, thereby adversely affecting the right of access to justice.
The IACHR has also identified the abuse of criminal law, the restriction of freedom of expression and other issues of special concern to the Commission. Second, the Commission has identified problems created by a confluence of circumstances and factors, such as the serious issues of citizen insecurity and violence in prison institutions, which affect Venezuelans’ enjoyment of their rights to life and to personal integrity, among others.
Since 2003, the Commission has made repeated overtures to request the State’s permission to conduct an observation visit. Thus far, the State has refused to allow the Commission to visit Venezuela, which not only affects the functions assigned to the Commission as one of the OAS’ principal organs for the promotion and protection of human rights, but also seriously weakens the system of protection that the member states of the Organization themselves created.
The Commission continues to appreciate the progress made in the area of economic, social and cultural rights through policies and measures designed to correct the problems plaguing broads sectors of the Venezuelan population, as well as the progress that Venezuela has made in instituting laws that protect and guarantee these rights. The priority that the State assigns to these measures is essential in guaranteeing a decent life for the Venezuelan population and an important basis for preserving democratic stability.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
As part of its ongoing effort to improve its transparency, order and predictability, in 2011 the Commission amended Article 11 of its Rules of Procedure, which concerns the internal procedures for the identification and appointment of its Executive Secretary. At its March 2011 period of session, the Commission approved a draft amendment for discussion, which led to a healthy debate in which the member states and civil society organizations took part. Given the decision announced by Mr. Santiago Canton, current Executive Secretary, to resign his appointment in the near future, and in keeping with the amended text of Article 11 of the Commission’s Rules of Procedure, the Commission opened a public competition to fill the vacancy. This process is still underway; the highest standards of integrity and transparency are being observed. The final selection is planned for July 2012.
During its 144th period of session, the Commission devoted careful consideration to the Report of the Special Working Group to Reflect on the Workings of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights with a view to Strengthening the Inter-American Human Rights System. I would like to take this opportunity to inform you that today, the Commission sent its first document of reply. We appreciate the importance of the recommendations that the Special Working Group made to the Inter-American Commission itself and to the member states and Secretary General of the Organization. The Commission is convinced that this process is an important contribution to its own mission. Indeed, during its 144th period of session, the IACHR decided to embark upon a detailed and diligent examination of its procedures and mechanisms by means of an in-depth consultation with all the users of the Inter-American System; some characteristics of this process are described in the document in question. With that end in mind and as an important step in that direction, the Commission has discussed the idea of issuing a questionnaire, which could be distributed shortly; it has also discussed the possibility of holding meetings to confer with all the users of the System (some of those meetings would be regional in scale), for the purpose of studying and reflecting upon the recommendations made to the Commission.
The Commission would like to again express its willingness, receptivity and commitment to continue the process of reflection that the OAS General Assembly launched for the purpose of strengthening the System. Here, the IACHR believes it is important to make the point that such internal reflection processes have historically been followed by significant changes in the Commission’s work; these precedents are described at length in the Commission’s document.
On behalf of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, I would like to express its gratitude for the member states’ commitment to strengthening the Inter-American System. We are confident that their commitment will bring about ratification of all inter-American human rights instruments, greater resources earmarked to enable the organs of the System to function properly, and better compliance with their recommendations and decisions. I am also grateful for the support that the member states have given to the Commission in its abiding resolve to faithfully discharge its mandate in an independent and autonomous manner. The Commission’s independence and autonomy are the basis of its credibility. As we know full well, that credibility is the essential source of its efficacy.