Speech by the Chair to the OAS General Assembly at its Forty-Second Regular Session


Address Delivered by the President of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, José de Jesús Orozco Henríquez, to the OAS General Assembly at its Forty-Second Regular Session

Cochabamba, Bolivia, June 5, 2012


The Foreign Minister of the Plurinational State of Bolivia and President of the General Assembly,
Heads of Delegation of the member states,
Mr. Secretary General,
Mr. Assistant Secretary General,
Observers and representatives of civil society,
Ladies and gentlemen:

We find ourselves at a critical juncture for the Inter-American Human Rights System. Let there be no doubt: what it is at stake is no less than the legacy that the States, civil society and the organs of the inter-American system have built so that this and future generations across the hemisphere might be able to enjoy and exercise their human rights. It is a legacy of regional guarantees and effective mechanisms to ensure that no individual in the Americas feels that his or her most essential human rights are unprotected, and so that the States –through their present and future governments- feel compelled to respect those values that the States, freely exercising their sovereignty, chose to espouse and undertook an international obligation to protect.

It is in embracing our own history and acknowledging the challenges we face today, even under democracy, that we are called upon to reflect on the measures we must take to better protect the dignity and human rights of all peoples of the Americas and at the same time consider what might weaken that protection. It goes without saying that the experience of the inter-American human rights system is acknowledged to be one of the most successful in the world and represents, when all else fails, the last recourse for millions of people in the region when domestic mechanisms and measures to protect them from injustice and abuse prove ineffective.

We are grateful for the commitment, energy and resources that the member states have invested in the Special Working Group to Reflect upon the Workings of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights with a view to Strengthening the Inter-American Human Rights System. We appreciate its recommendations and also recognize the contributions that civil society has made directly to the Commission in the person of organizations, victims, academics, and human rights defenders, contributions that have been vital to this process of reflection.

During the session it held in March of this year, the Inter-American Commission decided to embark upon a frank and responsible process of in-depth, pluralistic, technical and diligent reflection on those recommendations. The first opportunity to follow up on the dialogue began at our headquarters on May 30, with the holding of the Preparatory Seminar on the Strengthening of the Inter-American Human Rights System. The Commission is absolutely committed to continuing these forums, which would include subregional forums as well, so that the perspectives of all users of the system can be considered when its rules of procedure and institutional practices are eventually amended.

Today’s regional human rights system has been in the making for over 50 years, constantly evolving and improving upon itself. Throughout its history, the Commission has periodically introduced changes and adjustments to its Rules of Procedure, which it has always done –and always will- in consultation with the users of the system, the states, the representatives of civil society and the victims of human rights violations.

The Commission knows full well that the legitimacy of its work, which has grown and become stronger in recent decades, is attributable, first and foremost, to its autonomy and independence, which are the source of its credibility and conditions sine qua non for its efficacy.

The following were among the Commission’s activities in 2011: three sessions were held; more than 1600 new petitions were received and recorded; after examining the petitions received, 67 admissibility reports were approved, as were 11 inadmissibility reports, eight friendly settlement reports, 54 decisions to close the record and 25 merits reports; five merits reports were published, and 24 cases were referred to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. It also decided over 400 requests seeking precautionary measures and held 91 public hearings and 58 working meetings. The Commission conducted 30 working visits and visits to promote human rights, headed by the Commissioners in their capacity as country or thematic rapporteurs. A number of seminars and training courses were held, as was a wide assortment of activities to promote human rights, which included monitoring the human rights situation in the 35 member states of the Organization. All this is reflective of the many and diverse demands placed upon the Commission and the various ways in which it protects and promotes human rights in the hemisphere.

One consideration worth noting is that unlike the Inter-American Court, the Commission’s mandate is to monitor human rights in the 35 member states, based on the OAS Charter and the American Declaration. In 2011, a significant part of the Commission’s work concerned countries that have not ratified the American Convention. For example, of the five merits reports that the Commission published, two were on countries that have ratified the Convention and three were on countries that have not yet ratified the Convention. Of those three, one is a case involving Canada that concerns due process in immigration- related matters. The other two involve the United States: one case concerns due process and the death penalty, and the other examines the State’s duties to prevent and respond to domestic violence. When all the merits reports published in the last decade are combined, 44 were cases involving countries that have ratified the Convention, and 25 involved countries that have not done so.

Precautionary measures are one area in which the Commission has been “selective” –for lack of a better word- in terms of the countries in respect of which precautionary measures have been granted. In 2011, for example, the two countries in respect of which the Commission granted the most precautionary measures were Honduras, at 12, and the United States, at 11. In response to a comment made yesterday, the Inter-American Commission was the first intergovernmental organization to request special measures to protect the detainees being held at Guantánamo. It has requested permission to visit Guantánamo and has repeatedly asked that the detention facility there be closed.

The petition and case system is a basic tool in the protection of human rights, and has had significant effects in terms of ensuring their observance and advancement in the region. As we all know, the Inter-American System’s profile is more prominent under democratic systems of government, the effect of which has been to increase the number of petitions and cases, but not necessarily because human rights violations have increased. The Commission must once again underscore the fact that the increase in the number of petitions and the shortage of financial and therefore human resources assigned by the OAS has created a serious case backlog, despite some efforts made by states.

As part of its Strategic Plan the Commission has sought and made use of external funds to reverse the backlog and endeavor to fulfill its mandate. It has also expedited its internal procedures. As a result, a petition spends half the time it spent five years ago awaiting its initial review. As indicated in the Strategic Plan, with adequate resources the Commission would be able to keep the petition and case system functioning apace.

While today’s Commission is facing enormous challenges, it has also seen the member states make significant strides in legislative reform, public policy and access to justice. The Commission cites a number of those advances in its 2011 report, among them the decisive measures underway in a number of countries to tackle the problem of impunity that has allowed egregious human rights violations committed under undemocratic regimes of the past to go unpunished. It is also gratified by the efforts undertaken in a number of countries to have their laws and jurisprudence reflect the international treaties and commitments they have undertaken in the area of human rights and to ensure that the civil servants charged with enforcing those commitments have the training they need.

While repeated references are made throughout the report to the progress achieved, the Commission also emphasized the challenges that persist, even under democracy, and that encumber the full enjoyment of human rights by those under the jurisdiction of the American states. It observed, for example, that women continue to encounter serious obstacles to their right to live free from violence and discrimination, and cited the particularly difficult situation of Afro-descendant and indigenous women who have historically been victims of discrimination on three fronts: gender, poverty and race. In 2011, the Commission published five reports on such themes as gender equality, access to justice and to information on reproductive rights, and others.

In 2011, which the United Nations declared as “International Year for People of African Descent,” this group continued to suffer exclusion and discrimination; they habitually live in the poorest areas with the least infrastructure, and are more exposed to crime and violence. In 2011, the Commission published the report on the Situation of People of African Descent in the Americas.

One of the themes advanced by the Commission that has had the greatest impact in the region is protection of indigenous peoples’ right to ownership of their ancestral lands; full enjoyment of this right involves not just protection of an economic unit, but also protection of the human rights of a group whose economic, social and cultural development is based on its relationship to the land.

In 2011, the IACHR also confirmed the serious situation of children and adolescents in conflict with the law, and expressed its concern over the fact that anti-terrorism laws were being enforced against children and adolescents. It also published a report on juvenile justice.

The Commission remained equally attentive to the situation of migrant persons in the hemisphere and reiterated its position to the effect that where undocumented migrants are concerned deprivation of liberty should be used only in exceptional cases. The Commission published a report on Immigration in the United States, specifically focusing on detention and due process. In that report, it emphasized the need to introduce concrete reforms to benefit immigrants in the United States.

The IACHR also directed its attention to another population group with enormous needs, and underscored how important it is that short- and medium-term public policies be adopted as well as immediate measures to deal with situations that serious affect the basic human rights of prisoners and detainees. It approved a report recommending constructive measures to be adopted.

As 2011 came to a close, the Commission approved its first report compiling the system’s standards on the subject of the death penalty.

Where freedom of expression was concerned, one of the principal challenges facing the States of the region in 2011 were the assassinations, assaults, acts of aggression and threats against journalists, and the criminal sanctions imposed on those who made statements offensive to public officials.

In recent years, the Commission has observed the serious de facto and de jure discrimination that lesbian, gay, trans, bisexual and intersex persons experience; the IACHR has received reports of assassinations, rapes and threats, as well as deep-seeded discrimination and social exclusion. For a more in-depth probe of these problems, the Commission established a unit on the rights of these persons.

Against this backdrop, human rights defenders also fall victim to assassination and assault. Many of them are singled out by the authorities as a way to discredit and stigmatize their work; they face baseless criminal prosecution, see their sources of funding cut off, and do not have adequate and effective means of protection. To draw attention to the inter-American standards on the protection of human rights defenders, the Commission published its Second Report on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders in the Americas.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

The Commission has examined how to improve the method used to prepare chapter IV of its report. The discussions inside the Commission are still ongoing with the input received from the states and civil society in the form of observations and suggestions. This process of reflection will continue in the months ahead, through a dialogue with the users of the system. In its 2011 Report, the Commission decided to include Colombia, Cuba, Honduras and Venezuela in that chapter, for the reasons therein explained.

In this account of the Commission’s 2011 activities, I would like to take the opportunity to thank the Commission members whose terms expired in December for the outstanding work they performed. I would also like to thank Commissioner Dinah Shelton, who was president of the Commission during this period. I am grateful to the staff of the Executive Secretariat for their professionalism and dedication to the cause of promoting and protecting human rights. And I appreciate my current colleagues’ show of confidence by designating me as their President. I would especially like to recognize the professionalism and tireless and efficient labors of our Executive Secretary, Santiago Cantón, who is leaving this month after 12 years of service with the Commission.

In the reflection process undertaken to strengthen the Inter-American Human Rights System and in which we are all engaged, the Commission is confident that the commitment of each and every state will be made manifest through universal adoption or ratification of all the inter-American human rights instruments. It trusts that greater resources will be forthcoming to enable its organs to function and that its recommendations and decisions will be carried out to achieve effective observance and defense of the dignity and human rights of every person in the Americas.