Media Center



April 9, 1996 - Washington, DC

I would like to thank Dean Claudio Grossman for the invitation to participate in the commemoration of the centennial of the Washington College of Law. It is a particular honor for me to join in celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of this distinguished legal institution.

The commitment to equal education and access to the law for all, which prompted two visionary women to establish the Washington College of Law, are clearly still alive in the university's professors and students. The Washington College of Law is one of the premier international human rights centers, and has been a particularly important force in the Americas. Human rights lawyers trained here can be found at international, regional and national bodies which promote and protect human rights.

The Washington College of Law is an important ally of the inter-American human rights system in many other ways. For instance, the Center for Humanitarian and Human Rights Studies holds an important annual conference on the inter-American human rights system. Furthermore, the Center will hold this year the first-ever Inter-American Moot Court. This competition will bring together student representatives from over 25 law schools throughout this hemisphere. This is an important initiative for educating young legal professional in the jurisprudence of the inter-American system.

In addition, I would like to recognize the significant roles that several members of this institution's faculty have played in advocating human rights in our Hemisphere. In particular I would like to recognize Dean Claudio Grossman who is serving as the president of the Commission; Professor Robert Goldman who recently became a member of the Commission; and, Professor Tom Farer who was a member and former president of the Commission.

Distinguished guests,

The Inter-American human rights system is the result of exceptionally forward thinking leaders. From its very inception, the Inter-American human rights system played a formative role in the post-World War II development of human rights protection. The adoption of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man in 1948 actually preceded the adoption of the Universal Declaration by several months. Their commitment to these ideals continue to be the foundation of our human rights system.

Because the member states recognized that effective implementation of human rights protection required the action of an independent, impartial, and representative body, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights was created in 1959. With the adoption of the American Convention on Human Rights, and by elevating the Commission to the status of a principal organ of the OAS, the Inter-American human rights system was assigned a clear mandate.

Today, twenty-five of thirty-five member states are parties to the American Convention on Human Rights. Seventeen of those have accepted the obligatory jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. As Secretary General, I urge all member states of the OAS to ratify the American Convention and to accept the Court's jurisdiction. Nothing would better illustrate this hemisphere's commitment to the consolidation of democracy.

As I look forward, the Inter-American Human Rights System will face entirely new challenges. Indeed, thanks to the accomplishments during the first decades of its existence, we have reached an historic milestone in the struggle for human rights. All the governments in the hemisphere - except Cuba - are democratically elected. As a result, today's reality is very different from the days when many of the peoples of the hemisphere were governed by authoritarian regimes. As the painful memories of military dictatorships and their flagrant human rights violations recede into the past, our nations have emerged with a renewed sense of dedication to democratic values.

The return to democracy also means the inter-American human rights system operates within a different context. Violations of rights are more readily denounced. Many governments are taking measures to improve their judicial systems and to establish offices charged with monitoring human rights. Governments are more amenable to visits by the Commission. There are increased opportunities for cooperation among governments, petitioners, and representatives of nongovernmental human rights organizations.

In addition, there is a greater acceptance on the part of member states of the Commission and the Court. Indeed, more countries have accepted the obligatory jurisdiction of the Court, and the Commission is sending more contentious cases to the Court.

As a result, there has been a sizable increase in the number of petitions presented to the Inter-American Commission. And, these cases are frequently more diverse and complex than the cases of systematic abuses by authoritarian governments.

For example, the Commission handles new cases involving the lack of due process, judicial protection and judicial remedies.

Others involve special civilian and military courts with jurisdiction over civilians, freedom of expression, sexual discrimination, compensation for expropriations, and private property disputes. At the same time, the Commission continues to receive from democratically elected governments cases of disappearances, tortures and extra-judicial executions. The diversity and complexity of the new workload reflect the different levels of rule of law and underscore the challenges faced by each country in expanding fundamental liberties.

There is a greater realization that democracy is not only the best guarantee for peaceful relations between states, but also the necessary precondition for individuals to fully exercise their fundamental rights and freedoms. And even though the countries of the hemisphere are at different stages in the process of expanding the democratic system of government, the existence of elected governments has already created a favorable environment for the further acceptance and expansion of the regional system.

Yet, we also recognize that the establishment of democracy, in and of itself, does not eliminate violations. Abuses can still be found in countries with young democracies as well as in those with well-established systems.

Our next milestone will be reached only when we can say with confidence that the rule of law indeed prevails throughout the Hemisphere. In a democracy, governments are held accountable for guaranteeing the rights of all citizens. They are responsible for ensuring that liberties are progressively consolidated and expanded. This will only be accomplished through the rule of law -- the underpinning of any successful democratic system.

The rule of law enables citizens to seek redress when their rights have been violated. It also guarantees that those who are responsible are brought to justice. Thus, the challenge facing the Americas today is to put in place the necessary mechanisms to ensure that the rule of law will hold sway. For most democratically elected governments the task is nothing short than to:

guarantee an independent Judiciary that is fair, efficient, transparent, and accessible to all;
bring the armed forces under civilian control and incorporate them into democratic society;
eliminate the legal constraints on rights, which are vestiges of an authoritarian past;
address prison conditions and secure the right to a speedy trial; and,
overcome the socioeconomic disparities that exacerbate endemic judicial and legal problems.
Furthermore, we must make every effort to eliminate violence and all forms of discrimination. Truly participatory democracies cannot flourish until every segment of society fully participate in national life. This realization underscores the urgent need to enhance the protection the rights of the indigenous peoples, women and children. Fortunately, democratically elected governments and civil society recognize these problems. For the inter-American human rights system this raises new challenges and opportunities.

First, we need to strengthen the regional system by extending its legitimacy and strengthening its enforceability. Certainly, the growing consolidation of democracies has improved the relationship between the Inter-American system and member states. In fact, individuals living in our democracies can now expect legal processes to be available and hopefully effective in protecting their rights. But, much remains to be accomplished to ensure the outcome we all seek.

The second important challenge confronting our struggle to promote human rights in the Americas, is the changing nature of the violations that the Inter-American system is called upon to address. Democracy creates different types of legal actions raising "questions of law". The evolution of the types of cases now accepted by the Commission calls greater cooperation among and within the member states. The increased sophistication in legal analysis that is required will only be satisfied by recruiting highly qualified personnel to serve on the Commission's legal staff, and by taking advantage of the latest technology to improve its fact-finding and legal research capabilities.

A third set of issues confronting the Hemisphere is the need to assist governments in their respective efforts to build transparent and effective domestic legal systems. Ultimately in a democracy, the state bears the primary responsibility for promoting and protecting human rights. That is why domestic institutions must be able implement international standards, adopt the necessary local measures of protection and ensure the availability of effective judicial protection.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is responding to these opportunities by exploring new ways to support such domestic initiatives. By receiving information, making recommendations, and providing legal guidance the Commission can assist national governments in their efforts. The Commission should continue to appoint special rapporteurs to explore issues, present recommendations and draft legal instruments.

In addition, the member states of the OAS should look for opportunities for cooperation in training in various areas of the judicial process, such the police, investigators, the judiciary and legislature. Domestic systems can be greatly strengthened by incorporating new technologies to provide modern systems of data collection and expanding legal libraries and access to information.

To further respond to the new challenges, allow me to share with you some specific ideas that would enable the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to take advantage of the opportunities that lie ahead.

First, it is imperative that all legal instruments of the system be ratified, especially the American Convention on Human Rights, and that all countries accept the compulsory jurisdiction of the Court. Yet, several countries are not fully incorporated into the system.

Second, the emphasis of the Commission should focus on investigating and resolving individual cases, and offering recommendations to the countries on how to improve human rights protection. We should strengthen the capacity of the Court to handle more contentious cases, and to develop a body of case law for use by national and international legal bodies. We should encourage the countries to seek advisory opinions from the Court, when necessary, to clarify discrepancies between national and international law.

The emphasis of both bodies should be to collaborate, whenever possible, with the countries in search of friendly solutions to cases; and, to assist in the fulfillment of their international legal obligations. We should develop strategies to ensure that the countries comply with the recommendation of the Commission and the decisions of the Court.

In this spirit, it will be necessary to contemplate more frequent sessions for both the Commission and Court, and to provide them with the financial and human resources to meet the growing demand.

Third, we need to improve the collaboration between the Commission and the Court, as well as to further clarify their respective functions. This will necessarily entail the harmonization of certain parts of the statutes, regulations, and procedures of both the Commission and the Court. It will also guarantee greater transparency, clarity and efficiency.

Our fourth objective should be to improve the connection between the inter-American system and the national systems. The countries should be encouraged to adapt their national norms and practices consistent with their international obligations. It is worth noting that the Commission has already undertaken two separate studies-- one on prisons, and another on women's rights- that will enable the countries to better understand how their norms and practices fit with their international obligations.

Finally, we need to effectively incorporate the new social, economic and cultural rights that have been brought forward with the advent of democracy throughout the hemisphere. We must also extend the system's protection to include all social and ethnic groups in society. In this way, the system will achieve its full potential.

In closing, allow me to turn to how the Organization of American States supports democracy and integration in the hemisphere. There is no doubt that the major topics on the Inter-American agenda at the close of the century are, in addition to the protection of human rights, the strengthening of the democratic state, the protection of the environment, a renewed commitment to sound social policy and the expansion of economic prosperity.

In support of democracy, the OAS will play an increasingly comprehensive and ambitious role in three directions. First, the OAS should play a direct role in seeking resolution of conflicts that threaten democracy in the hemisphere. Second, the OAS will work to anticipate and dismantle pressures that can eventually undermine democratic institutions. Third, member states have requested that the OAS strengthen democratic institutions and processes through technical assistance to municipalities, electoral bodies, regional political fora, and national human rights bodies.

The environment and the search for the right mix of policies that foster sustainable development will also receive substantial support within the framework of the new OAS. In the next few months leading up to the upcoming Bolivia Summit, the OAS will be considering several proposals including the creation of a new Unit for sustainable Development and a new hemispheric plan of action which will include proposed reforms in the legal field focusing on the Environment.

There is another revolution that has yet to happen in Latin America and the Caribbean. The fight against poverty can no longer be postponed. The problems in this area are acquiring the semblance of a crisis. Yet, despite the increased allocation of resources to social expenditure in Latin America and the Caribbean, the target population -- the poorest -- have not seen substantial improvement in their condition.

In the area of social development, the OAS is moving forward to address the deeper structural problems as well as the issues related to the quality of policy formulation. The evident lack of effectiveness of the systems being used suggests that we are in desperate need of a better way to carry out social policy.

On the economic front, the OAS has been vigorously pursuing the mandate it has received from the Summit of the Americas to promote trade among its member states by devoting a large portion of its resources in support of the Free Trade Area in the Americas. By providing the necessary assistance to the working groups of the Foreign Trade ministerial process, the OAS is actively facilitating a fundamental reality that has overtaken the agendas of the nations of the Americas.

The economic integration of the Americas will reshape the social, political and cultural context within which all of the peoples will at last be able to pursue their dreams and improve the standard of well-being for generations to come. There is no doubt that this great enterprise would not have been possible just a few years ago at a time when only a few American nations shared a common political language, let alone anything else.

The FTAA process, the OAS-sponsored Corruption Treaty approved two weeks ago in Caracas, and the upcoming Meeting in Lima on Terrorism are but three timely examples of the political will of the nations of the Americas to take concrete steps toward building the Hemispheric Community of democratic nations advocated at the Summit of the Americas.

In many ways, the same can be said about human rights. Without the assurance that an individual, regardless of his or her background and origins, will enjoy the rights and liberties that must be implicit in any contract in a democratic society, there cannot be the kind of economic freedom we seek for ourselves and for our children in the years to come.

The Americas have entered confidently into a new age full of possibility. Our task, however, remains the pursuit of greater liberties for our peoples by setting them free of the legacies of the past.

Thank you very much.