María Isabel Rivero
IACHR Press and Communication Office
Tel: +1 (202) 370-9001
Washington, D.C. - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) held its 157th regular session on April 2-15, 2016. During the session, the IACHR worked on the analysis of petitions, cases, and precautionary measures and held 49 public hearings, 34 working meetings, and meetings with States and civil society organizations from around the region. The IACHR also presented five thematic reports during this session: “Indigenous Peoples, Afro-Descendant Communities, and Natural Resources: Human Rights Protection in the Context of Extraction, Exploitation, and Development Activities”; “Violence, Children and Organized Crime”; “Legal Standards: Gender Equality and Women’s Rights”; “Violence against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex (LGBTI) Persons in the Americas”; and “Criminalization of Human Rights Defenders.” The IACHR also had a dialogue with the Member States on good practices related to the rights of LGBTI persons.
The IACHR welcomes the growing interest in the region with regard to the human rights situation and the mechanisms available through the inter-American human rights system, which was evident once again in the interest this session generated. More than 7 million people followed the hearings through live webcasts or on social media.
In its public hearings, the IACHR received information concerning different human rights issues in 19 countries and on a regional level. Seven of the hearings were to hear arguments from the parties concerning cases in the merits stage. The Commission held 49 hearings, five at the request of States—Brazil, Costa Rica, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela; 40 at the request of civil society organizations; and four on the Inter-American Commission’s own initiative. The IACHR welcomes and values the active participation of the delegations of OAS Member States, as well as approximately 350 civil society organizations. On the other hand, the IACHR regrets that the States of Cuba and Nicaragua did not participate in the hearings they were called on to attend, and that the State of Ecuador participated in one of the two hearings convened. In this regard, the Inter-American Commission underscores that it is important for States to participate in all hearings, in good faith and with sufficient substantive information, in order to advance constructively toward solutions to the human rights problems facing the region.
The Inter-American Commission particularly values the participation in its sessions of United Nations agencies and institutions. The IACHR underscores the importance of the joint efforts carried out by the regional and international human rights systems for the purpose of better protecting and promoting the exercise of human rights, and it is pleased that this cooperation is becoming increasingly closer and more concrete. During this session, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Dubravka Simonovic, participated in a hearing as an expert. In addition, Juan Méndez, Special Rapporteur on torture; Mónica Pinto, Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers; Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; Ariel Dulitzky, a member of the Working Group on enforced or involuntary disappearances; and Dubravka Simonovic participated in a regional consultation with civil society, which was organized jointly by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and the IACHR. The session was opened by Ivan Simonovic, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights; the Vice President of the Inter-American Court, Eduardo Ferrer Mac-Gregor; and the President of the IACHR, James Cavallaro, and included the participation of more than 80 organizations of human rights defenders. Finally, on April 11 the IACHR received a delegation from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which was led by Ivan Simonovic and which included Amerigo Incalcaterra, Representative of the South America Regional Office, and Vladlen Stefanov, Chief of the National Institutions and Regional Mechanisms Section, as well as human rights officials Claudia Gerez and Liza Sekaggya. This meeting was a follow-up to the joint declaration on collaboration signed in 2014. In addition, a dialogue was held on Fiscal Policy and Human Rights in Times of Austerity; experts in attendance included Ricardo Martner, of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), and Rodrigo Uprimny, a member of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
During this session, the IACHR held private, separate meetings with the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts working in Mexico in connection with the investigations into the whereabouts of the 43 students who disappeared in Ayotzinapa; a high-level delegation of the Mexican State; and representatives of the students’ relatives. The purpose of these meetings was to follow through on the technical assistance agreement and to hear the parties’ positions on whether the Group of Experts should continue its work in Mexico. The students’ relatives asked the IACHR to renew the mandate of the Group of Experts until the truth about what happened has been determined, the whereabouts of the students have been clarified, and justice has been done. The father of one of the missing students spoke to the full Commission and said, “I ask from my heart that the Group of Experts continue with the case. The truth will be told by the kids when they appear.” For its part, the State delegation gave a positive appraisal of the contributions the Group of Experts has made to the investigation, indicated that the whereabouts of the students have not yet been determined, and expressed its wish for the technical assistance agreement to be brought to an end and for the Commission to continue following the matter within the framework of its jurisdiction. In that regard, the IACHR deeply regrets that the Mexican State has expressed its position not to extend the mandate of the Group of Experts and to end the agreement, even though the objectives—primarily, locating the missing students—have not yet been met. Given the nature of the technical assistance agreement, in which the State’s consent is indispensable, the IACHR believes that the conditions are not in place to continue the mandate of the Group of Experts. Therefore, in view of the findings of the Group of Experts, taking into consideration the position of the family members of the missing students, bearing in mind the Commission’s monitoring authority and the precautionary measure in force, and given the pressing need to remain vigilant on this matter, the Inter-American Commission has made the decision to establish a special follow-up mechanism until the objectives and recommendations established both in the precautionary measure and in the Group of Experts’ reports have been met. After consulting with the parties, the IACHR will determine the specific terms as to how the special follow-up mechanism will operate.
During this session, the IACHR received a proposal from Berta Zúñiga Cáceres and other relatives and colleagues of the well-known human rights defender Berta Cáceres, an indigenous leader and general coordinator of the Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras (COPINH), who was killed on March 3, 2016, while she was a beneficiary of IACHR precautionary measures. Berta Cáceres had on many occasions (more than 30 times) reported to the authorities and spoken out publicly about the situation of grave risk and ongoing threats she had faced. The family of Berta Cáceres asked the IACHR to appoint an interdisciplinary group of independent experts to assist in the investigation into her killing. OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro supported that request after meeting with the family and representatives of the human rights defender. The Inter-American Commission expressed to the State of Honduras that it was willing to appoint a group of this nature.
The murder of Berta Cáceres confirms the grave situation of risk experienced by human rights defenders in Honduras, which has been and continues to be cause for deep concern on the part of the IACHR. Moreover, this and other murders of beneficiaries of precautionary measures granted by the Commission call into question the State of Honduras’s effectiveness in implementing such measures, protecting the beneficiaries, and fulfilling its international obligations. This situation should be studied jointly by the individuals protected by precautionary measures and their representatives, the State, and the IACHR, in order to find solutions to ensure the effectiveness of protection measures in the country.
In the hearings, the IACHR received information concerning the situation of insecurity and risk faced by human rights defenders in Colombia, Cuba, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and many other countries. Killings, attacks, threats, and acts of harassment continue to be carried out against human rights defenders for the purpose of silencing them and putting a stop to their important work. In addition, defenders are singled out publicly, subjected to smear campaigns and disparagement, and criminalized, an issue explored in depth in one of the thematic reports presented by the IACHR during this session. The vast majority of these acts of violence remain unpunished, which encourages repetition. The Inter-American Commission urges the States to guarantee the right to defend rights.
Human rights defenders and others who participated in hearings, working meetings, and other activities in the context of this session have been subject to reprisals and threats upon returning to their countries. This situation had already come up in the past in some countries, and the fact that it is happening again is disturbing. It is absolutely unacceptable for a State to take any type of action motivated by the participation or activities of individuals or organizations that engage the bodies of the inter-American human rights system, in the exercise of their rights under the Convention. As Article 63 of the Rules of Procedure of the IACHR establishes, States “shall grant the necessary guarantees to all the persons who attend a hearing or who in the course of a hearing provide information, testimony or evidence of any type to the Commission,” and they “may not prosecute the witnesses or experts, or carry out reprisals against them or their family members because of their statements or expert opinions given before the Commission.”
In hearings and working meetings, the Commission received deeply troubling information regarding the serious obstacles many segments of the population in the Americas face in exercising their fundamental rights. One hearing raised the issue of the alarming levels of malnutrition suffered by children in Guatemala. Indigenous peoples in Ecuador, Panama, and Peru reported on the serious impact of some natural resource development projects on the exercise of their rights. A number of U.S. groups talked about problems related to access to drinking water and the lack of adequate sanitation, which disproportionately affect Afro-descendant and indigenous communities and people living in poverty. Another hearing analyzed Puerto Rico’s economic crisis and the differentiated impact it has on people living in poverty and extreme poverty, as well as other groups that are particularly vulnerable. The IACHR also received particularly alarming information concerning the violence and discrimination suffered by women of African descent in Brazil and by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans persons, or those perceived as such, in Bolivia and Honduras. The high levels of police violence suffered by trans women in some countries of the region are of special concern to the IACHR. With regard to the Dominican Republic, the IACHR was informed about the serious infringement of political rights of Dominicans of Haitian descent, which results from the arbitrary process of denationalizing these individuals, as well as from the structural racism and discrimination they face. In addition, the IACHR received information concerning violations of the human rights of children and adolescents in the context of human mobility, including their detention, especially when they are part of irregular migration flows or when they are fleeing violence in search of refuge in other countries, a situation that has reportedly been aggravated by security measures adopted by several States in the region. In many cases, the public policies that States have adopted in response to citizen insecurity, known as “hardline” or “iron fist” policies, have emphasized repressive aspects such as lowering the age of criminal responsibility, imposing longer sentences, or expanding the use of pretrial detention, which is conducive to intolerance, stigma, and social exclusion. This session included an important hearing on alternative measures designed to reduce the use of pretrial detention.
The IACHR values the progress made in the peace process in Colombia and will follow and analyze the resulting agreements, within the sphere of its authority. The consolidation of the peace process and the expectations for achieving a stable and lasting peace are cross-cutting factors in the country’s human rights situation. The IACHR is convinced that reaching peace in Colombia is an essential step for the protection of human rights in the country. While the process of attaining peace poses a complex dynamic, the full observance of the State’s human rights obligations must be a central aspect. In addition, the IACHR is troubled by the information it received concerning an increase in killings and attacks against human rights defenders and the activity of illegal armed groups that the IACHR has identified as linked to paramilitary structures, which the State has a duty to break up.
Gross human rights violations that take place during armed conflicts must not go unpunished. On this issue, a hearing was held during this session concerning the situation of ongoing impunity with regard to grave human rights violations perpetrated during the armed conflict in El Salvador. During that hearing, the IACHR observed that the recovery of historical memory and justice for grave crimes of the past is essential to understand and solve the problem of violence today. The Commission appreciates the invitation extended by the Foreign Minister of El Salvador for the IACHR to visit the country.
With regard to the importance of combating impunity, the IACHR welcomes Canada’s decision to establish a national investigation into the disappearances and murders of indigenous women and children in that country. This step would comply with one of the recommendations the Inter-American Commission made in its report “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in British Columbia, Canada.”
The IACHR also received information concerning the right to freedom of expression in Argentina. The Commission holds in regard the high-level delegations that participated on behalf of the State and on behalf of the petitioners, and appreciates the information presented by both parties. Civil society organizations and university and community media outlets discussed a series of infringements of freedom of expression that reportedly occurred as a consequence of changes introduced to the Communication Services Law through three decrees issued by the executive branch on grounds of necessity and urgency. The State delegation justified the changes in the context of violations to freedom of expression seen in the previous administration, the speed of technological changes in information technologies, and the subsequent ratification of these regulations by the legislative branch. The IACHR welcomes the government’s announcement that it will provide an opportunity for consultation and dialogue prior to the enactment of new legislation that is respectful of international standards. The IACHR also takes note of the transitory nature of the current situation and calls to mind the principle that there should be no regression on human rights, which is why it will continue to follow this process.
In another hearing on freedom of expression, Mexican journalist Carmen Aristegui and a number of organizations denounced a series of mechanisms Mexico has reportedly put in place involving indirect censorship and infringements of the right of access to information, which reduces debate on matters of public interest. The Mexican State, meanwhile, explained the regulatory and institutional advancements in place to ensure access to information and the allocation of official advertising based on objective criteria.
One of the most serious challenges the Inter-American Commission is currently facing is the lack of resources to fully meet its mandates to promote and defend human rights. The financial situation of the IACHR, which has been very serious for many years, has worsened this year. The IACHR receives only 6 percent of the general budget of the Organization of American States (OAS). Given the seriousness of the situation, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights resolutely calls on the region’s heads of state to assume their responsibility to the inter-American human rights system. The IACHR urges the States to instruct the relevant bodies to allocate the financial resources needed so that the IACHR can fully meet its mandate.
The IACHR prepared a report on its 157th session.
A principal, autonomous body of the OAS, the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.