Media Center



December 13, 2002 - Washington, DC

National Press Club

Good morning, my name is Juan Méndez and I am the President of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Today the Commission is releasing a landmark report concerning the protection of fundamental human rights in the struggle against terrorism. Since September 11, 2001, there has been considerable discussion in the media and elsewhere concerning what measures should be taken to combat terrorism and how fundamental human rights and civil liberties apply to those measures. This has included debate over what means are most appropriate for detaining, investigating, prosecuting and punishing those suspected of terrorist activities. The Commission’s report attempts to provide clarification and guidance on these crucial issues, drawing upon the Commission’s longstanding experience in dealing with human rights protections in the face of terrorism.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights was established over 40 years ago as the main body of the Organization of American States responsible for promoting the observance and protection of human rights in the Americas. Since that time, one of the most difficult tasks faced by the Commission has been supervising human rights protections in states that have been the targets of terrorism. In various countries of this region, the fundamental human rights and democratic freedoms of the Hemisphere’s inhabitants have been imperiled by terrorist violence as well as by disproportionate state responses to it.

In confronting these situations, the Commission has indicated in no uncertain terms that governments of the Americas are obliged to take the measures necessary to prevent terrorism and other forms of violence and to guarantee the security of their populations. At the same time, the Commission has declared that states remain bound by their international human rights obligations at all times, subject only to suspensions or restrictions that are specifically permitted under international law when the life of the nation is threatened. In the Commission’s experience, when states have sacrificed fundamental rights in the name of fighting terrorism, the rule of law and democratic freedoms are eroded and the objectives of terrorism are ultimately advanced rather than diminished.

The tragic events of September 11, 2001 have presented the international community with difficult challenges. Nevertheless, the fundamental international rules governing the conduct of states, including the basic rights of persons, remain intact – any notion that international law is irrelevant or inapplicable to the post-September 11 campaign against terrorism must be rejected.

In order to lend guidance to OAS member states on these issues, the Commission adopted a resolution in December 2001 in which it decided to prepare a comprehensive study on terrorism and human rights. In preparing the report, the Commission drew upon the views of international experts as well as observations from pertinent nongovernmental organizations and from OAS member states themselves. The report is intended to assist states to design legislative and other responses to terrorist violence that take into account standards set by international law.

To this end, the report acknowledges that terrorist violence may occur in times of peace, in states of emergency, and in situations of war. The report therefore considers states’ obligations under both international human rights and the law of armed conflict. The report considers standards of protection under these regimes of law in six main areas: the right to life, the right to humane treatment, the right to personal liberty and security, the right to a fair trial, the right to freedom of expression, the rights to judicial protection and non-discrimination, and the protection of migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, and other non-nationals.

The report emphasizes, for example, that detainees must never be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment, through conditions of detention, methods of interrogation or otherwise. Closely connected with this proscription is the requirement that the treatment of detainees be subjected to appropriate oversight mechanisms as prescribed under applicable regimes of international law, in times of peace and in times of war. The report stresses that persons charged with and tried for terrorist-related offenses must, in all situations, be afforded fundamental due process protections, including the right of a defendant to prompt notification in detail of the charges against them, the right to be assisted by counsel without delay, and the right to a public trial. Moreover, the report urges member states to guarantee the right to freedom of expression in all circumstances and subject only to permissible restrictions and derogations, as an informed public can be an effective tool in monitoring and preventing abuses by public authorities during situations of terrorist threat. The situation of migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and other non-nationals is afforded specific attention by the Commission, as these persons are particularly vulnerable to human rights violations in the development and execution of counter-terrorist measures. Finally, the report emphasizes the need for states to comply in all circumstances and situations with the absolute prohibition of discrimination of any kind, including discrimination based upon race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, economic status, birth or any other social condition. The Commission’s report concludes with a series of specific recommendations for OAS member states to give effect to the Commission’s conclusions.

There is no question that terrorism constitutes one of this century’s most profound threats to international peace and security, the rule of law, and human rights and democratic freedoms, and that states are duty-bound to take urgent measures to respond to this threat. The campaign against terrorism is doomed to failure, however, if governments abandon the very rights and principles that anti-terrorist measures should be intended to preserve. Through this report, the Commission hopes to assist states in successfully defeating the menace of terrorism.

Thank you. I would now be pleased to answer any questions that you may have concerning the Commission’s report.