Media Center



October 11, 2005 - Washington, DC

Mr. Chairman of the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States, Mr. Secretary General, Mr. Assistant Secretary General, distinguished Permanent Representatives, distinguished Observers, Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am honored to address you in my capacity as President of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in this ceremony opening the Commission’s 123rd Regular Period of Sessions. I am pleased to be accompanied by my colleagues Susana Villarán, First Vice-President, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, Second Vice-President, and Commissioners José Zalaquett, Evelio Fernández, Florentín Meléndez, and Freddy Gutiérrez. We are also joined by Mr. Santiago Canton, Executive Secretary, and professional staff from the Executive Secretariat.

I would like to begin my presentation by extending the Commission’s sincere congratulations to José Miguel Insulza for his election in May 2005 as Secretary General of the Organization of American States. This session will be the Commission’s first under Secretary General Insulza’s tenure and we look forward to working together in the coming years in advancing the human rights objectives of the organization.

I would also like to take this opportunity to express the Commission’s deep gratitude for the work and commitment of two members of our Commission whose terms will expire at the end of this year, Susana Villarán and José Zalaquett. Both of these Commissioners have made invaluable contributions to the functioning and accomplishments of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and will be greatly missed. We have no doubt that you will continue to advance the cause of fundamental human rights in our Hemisphere and we remain your colleagues in this challenge.

Before providing an overview of the Commission’s schedule for this session and its activities since its last regular session in February and March of this year, I would like to highlight several issues that are of particular concern to the Commission at this moment in the history of our Organization and our region. Perhaps the most pressing matter facing the Commission is the severe financial crisis that continues to hinder the work of many of the organs and institutions of the Organization of American States. For the Commission, the prolonged nature of this crisis has diminished its core resources and has resulted in a constant threat to its most basic activities. As one important example, uncertainty as to whether the Commission can afford to convene its regular periods of sessions has become the rule rather than the exception. The Commission simply cannot continue to endure these kinds of shortcomings if it is expected to function effectively. In this respect, while the Commission is grateful to the OAS General Secretariat and the Permanent Council’s Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Affairs for the additional funds necessary to convene this session, as was the case with the Commission’s 121st regular session in October 2004, the importance of finding a permanent resolution to these financial difficulties cannot be overemphasized. In order to properly plan and execute its basic functions as well as the numerous additional mandates given to it by the political organs of the Organization, the Commission requires certainty as to the resources that will be available for those purposes.

Beyond its precarious financial situation, the Commission also has concerns with respect to the present state of democracy and the rule of law in the Americas. Since the creation of the Organization of American States in 1948, Member States have acknowledged that representative democracy constitutes an indispensable condition for the stability, peace and development of the region. More recently, OAS Member States recognized through the Inter-American Democratic Charter that the peoples of the Americas have a right to democracy and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it. According to the Charter, essential elements of representative democracy include respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and access to and the exercise of power in accordance with the rule of law.

As Member States are aware, threats to democracy and the rule of law can come in many forms. The most blatant is the military coup d’etat, a phenomenon with which our region has had a long and unfortunate history. But threats can also arise from less direct but equally perilous sources, including measures that undermine the fundamental principle of separation of powers and the independence of the branches of government. This may occur, for example, where members of the judiciary are appointed or removed through extraordinary procedures or for improper motives, where the judiciary is not provided with adequate resources to perform its functions, or where judicial processes are the subject of inappropriate or unwarranted interference or its decisions are subject to revision. Threats to democracy and the rule of law may also arise from unchecked corruption within political institutions, lack of transparency or responsible public administration on the part of governments, or measures that undermine the pluralistic system of political parties or organizations or full respect for freedom of expression and of the press. It is through these and other means that a state’s democratic institutional process or its legitimate exercise of power can be put at risk.

Also critical to the consolidation of democracy is the promotion and observance of economic, social and cultural rights in the Hemisphere, as reflected principally in the region’s Additional Protocol on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the “Protocol of San Salvador.” As acknowledged by Member States in the Inter-American Democratic Charter, democracy and social and economic development are interdependent and mutually reinforcing, and poverty, illiteracy, and low levels of human development are factors that adversely affect the consolidation of democracy.

Against this backdrop, the Commission has serious concerns with respect to the present state of affairs in the Americas, where conditions and events suggest that democracy and the rule of law is becoming increasingly imperiled. These include, for example, instances in which courts have been dissolved or judges have been appointed on a provisional basis, and where the procedures in the courts have been improperly used to address political issues. Corruption continues to impede the consolidation of democratic and transparent societies across the region, and human rights defenders, members of the media and others whose activities are critical to the exercise of democracy continue to the be object of threats and violence in many Member States.

The region also faces many challenges in the area of economic, social and cultural rights. As the Commission has observed previously, Latin America continues to suffer from the worst distribution of income in the world and inequality remains a dominant feature of Latin American societies in terms of income differences, access to services, and power and influence. In recent times, deteriorating economic and social conditions in various countries have provoked mass popular demonstrations that have often been met with excessive use of force by the police and in many cases have intensified the political instability. Further, the vast majority of the States have failed to take necessary measures to confront the causes and consequences produced by social exclusion and discrimination, which in turn amplify the threats to fair and effective participation by the citizenry in the essential processes of democratic governance.

In the face of these challenges, the Commission has continued to give priority to its role in monitoring the situation of democracy and the rule of law in the Hemisphere. In this connection and as part of its ongoing process of reflection, the Commission will deliberate upon to ways in which it might better assist in preventing and resolving threats to the principles and institutions that constitute the basis for the inter-American system. At the same time, the Commission calls upon Member States and the OAS to remain vigilant in identifying potential threats to democratic institutions and the rule of law in the region and, where necessary, take appropriate collective measures to address those threats, consistent with the terms of the Inter-American Democratic Charter.

With respect to the issue of economic, social and cultural rights in particular, the Commission notes that during the last regular session of the General Assembly in Fort Lauderdale, Member States approved a resolution to enforce the reporting obligation of states under the Protocol of San Salvador and requested the assistance of the Commission in preparing possible progress indicators for each of the rights on which information is to be provided. Further, the central theme of the Fourth Summit of the Americas in Argentina this coming November will be “Creating jobs to fight poverty and strengthen democratic governance,” thereby providing another important forum for dialogue on economic, social and cultural rights. In this respect, the Commission is convinced that giving political priority to resolving problems in this area is a first crucial step to advancing economic, social and cultural rights in the Hemisphere and thereby reinforcing the consolidation of democracy, and the Commission looks forward to working with Member States in these initiatives. That said, I am compelled to reiterate our point that without sufficient and stable financial and other resources, the Commission will simply not be in a position to provide the support in this and other areas that Member States have requested.

Turning to the Commission’s 123rd Period of Sessions, the Commission has an intensive program of activities scheduled for the next three weeks. As in past sessions, we will devote most of our work to studying and considering reports on petitions and individual case from various countries of the Hemisphere that are at one of the following procedural stages: admissibility; friendly settlement; consideration of the merits; publication; archiving; and decisions to refer cases to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The Commission has also convened more that 50 hearings that will address individual petitions, cases and precautionary measures as well as the general situation of human rights in particular member states and specific rights and issues within the Commission’s competence. In addition, the Commission, together with American University and the International Service on Human Rights, will be holding a seminar to train human rights defenders on the inter-American system, similar to the training that the Commission previously organized for Member States.

I would also like to mention some of the activities and developments that have taken place in the course of the Commission’s work since its last regular session in February and March of 2005.

The Commission’s Special Rapporteurship on the Rights of Women, with the support of the government of Finland, has engaged in an information-gathering process to identity the main achievements and challenges for women to obtain effective access to justice in the Americas, with the goal of designing practical recommendations to OAS Member States as to what legislative, public policy and institutional measures are needed to improve compliance with their obligations under international law. To launch this initiative, on April 19 and 20, 2005, the Rapporteurship organized a meeting of experts entitled “The Protection of Women’s Rights in the Inter-American System: an Analysis of Access to Justice,” at the Commission’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. in order to review the main achievements and challenges that women face to access justice in the Americas. The meeting was attended by 24 experts, representing a diversity of sectors, including government, the administration of justice, international and regional agencies, nongovernmental organizations, the academic sector, among others, as well as attorneys from the Commission’s Executive Secretariat.

As follow-up, the Rapporteurship organized four subregional meetings of experts in Peru, Costa Rica, Argentina, and Jamaica. The objective of these meetings have been to examine the major achievements and challenges that women face to access justice in the Andean region, Central America, the Southern Cone and the English-speaking Caribbean. The main goals of these meetings have included identifying and analyzing the key obstacles women face in obtaining effective access to justice in the region, collecting information about new strategies and best practices within the region to confront these obstacles, as well as information as to why certain promising strategies have failed to produce the desired results, and preparing an analysis including specific recommendations designed to assist the member states in achieving enhanced compliance with their obligations under regional human rights instruments to guarantee that women have effective access to judicial protection and guarantees. In addition, in June of 2005, the Rapporteurship completed a visit to the Republic of Colombia to evaluate the impact of the armed conflict on Colombian women and young girls and to collect information about the legislative, policy and institutional measures that have been adopted by the State to protect the rights of women.

Since the Commission’s last session, it also undertook two visits to the Republic of Haiti, the first from April 18 to 22, 2005 and the second from July 11 to 15, 2005. The aim of both visits was to obtain general information concerning the current situation of human rights in Haiti, particularly in light of pending elections in that country, and to build upon the Commission’s previous work in Haiti on the issue of administration of justice. During the visits, the Commission also conducted training seminars on the inter-American human rights system with officials and functionaries from various government ministries and agencies and with representatives of nongovernmental organizations. In June 2005, the Commission published preliminary observations its April 2005 visit and expects to consider a report on the administration of justice in Haiti during its present session.

In addition, from May 30 to June 1, 2005, the Commissioner’s Special Rapporteur for the Rights of the Child, who also serves as the UN Independent Expert on the Secretary General’s study on violence against children, traveled to Argentina to participate, together with UNICEF, in a regional consultation on violence against children. The meeting provided the Rapporteur with an opportunity to gather current information on the serious problem of violence against children, which will also be included in his report to the United Nations on the subject.

Further, from June 29 to July 7, 2005, I, in my capacity as the Commission’s Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons of African descent and against Racial Discrimination, undertook a promotional visit to the Republic of Brazil, the first such visit for the Rapporteurship since its establishment during the Commission’s 122nd regular session last March. During the visit, the Commission’s delegation traveled to Brasilia, Salvador and São Paulo, participated in the First National Conference on the Promotion of Racial Equality, and held meetings with authorities and representatives of civil society, especially of the Brazilian Social Movement for the rights of people of African descent.

In addition, from July 18 to 21, 2005, the Commission’s Vice-President and Rapporteur for Guatemala visited the Republic of Guatemala. Among her activities, the Rapporteur attended a public memorial for the victims of the massacre in Plan de Sánchez and worked with victims, their representatives, and the Guatemalan State on some current cases and urgent precautionary measures before the Commission.

From August 25 to 31, 2005, the Commission’s Rapporteur for Mexico, who also serves as its Rapporteur for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, undertook a visit to the Republic of Mexico during which he visited Mexico City and, for the first time, the state of Oaxaca where he met with government officials as well as representatives of nongovernmental organizations. Among the objectives of the visit were observing the human rights situation in Mexico, including in particular the situation of indigenous peoples, receiving information about Mexico’s nation human rights program, conducting follow up meetings on cases and precautionary measures, and promoting knowledge of the mechanisms of the inter-American human rights system.

Also during the past six months, the Commission participated in hearings during three sessions convened by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and took part in numerous seminars and conferences across the region, among other activities.

Mr. Chairman, Mr. Secretary General, Mr. Assistant Secretary General, distinguished representatives and observers, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

The year 2005 has, to this point, been characterized by both successes and difficulties in the Commission’s efforts to promote the observance and protection of human rights in our region. Progress has been made through the ratification by some Member States of additional inter-American human rights treaties, several human rights complaints have been the subject of friendly settlements before the Commission, and we have witnessed constructive dialogue between the Commission and Member States in such areas as rights of women, indigenous people’s rights, racial discrimination, and the situation of human rights defenders. In this respect, the Commission looks forward to its collaboration with the OAS Permanent Council’s Working Groups on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and on the preparation of a Draft Inter-American Convention against Racism and All Forms of Discrimination and Intolerance, as well as next week’s meeting of the Working Group to Prepare the Draft American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. At the same time, the difficulties facing the region remain formidable. Not only are the democratic institutions in several Member States in a weak and vulnerable condition, but, partly as a consequence, the protection of fundamental rights, including in particular those of vulnerable groups who face social exclusion and discrimination based upon such factors as ethnicity, class, race and gender, is inadequate and needs to be strengthened.

The Commission anticipates addressing these and other critical issues during its 123rd regular period of sessions and welcomes the participation of Member Sates, civil society and other interested persons and groups in this important process.

Thank you.