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August 23, 2010 - San José, Costa Rica

Thank you for this invitation and the honor that the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights accords me by calling on me to take the floor at this event celebrating its first 30 years of existence and intense activity.

I also appreciate the presence of the President and members of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, members of the diplomatic corps and such distinguished friends and, above all, the presence of those who are taking part in this interdisciplinary course on human rights in San José.

I believe it is important to recall how this cause, although universal, has played a fundamental role in Latin America and how it has been obtaining increasing adhesion in our countries. When reviewing the history of our Human Rights System on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, we were able to observe how this initiative originated to promote an issue that was a cause of concern to the Organization, as was logical within an institutional framework such as the inter-American one, which preceded the Universal Declaration and all the other major human rights instruments.

When the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights was created in 1959, no one imagined that its fundamental task would not be to promote these rights, as established in its original Statute, but rather to protect and defend the enormous number of citizens of Latin America and the Caribbean who would be victims of human rights violations in the years that followed. Thus, in my opinion, our system is based on three fundamental pillars: the Inter-American Commission, the Inter-American Court and the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights. The great advantage of this institutional framework is that it was not created out of thin air, as an abstract or purely intellectual structure, but rather has increasingly responded to the needs, problems and tragedies experienced in our region, while also identifying new ideas, concepts and agreements to respond to those tragedies. In this regards, the Court recently published a compendium of the principal human rights instruments applicable to the region, which is of consummate value.

Consequently, we are very pleased to be here, because this Institute plays a central role: that of expanding the awareness of men and women of this continent about the rights that are guaranteed internationally and the obligations of their States – which are the commitments they have assumed – and how to ensure their full implementation.

The subject of this course is the Inter-American Human Rights System, but more specifically the Inter-American Institute, which is an academic, independent and autonomous institution, to which we are proud to refer. I should clarify that, contrary to the Commission which is established in the OAS Charter, the Institute is an autonomous entity. Nevertheless, we have always considered it to be part of the inter-American system, which we wish to strengthen. Consequently, in recent days, we have been discussing how we can collaborate to ensure the impact of the Institute’s work in the countries of South America and the Caribbean, and we have also given it offices in Montevideo; because it forms part of our efforts and because the Inter-American Human Rights System would not be complete with only the Commission and the Court, since it also requires an educational and promotional mechanism such as the Institute.

Almost two years ago I had the opportunity of inaugurating an inter-American meeting of Ministers of Education in Panama that dealt specifically with human rights education, an initiative of the President at the time, Martín Torrijos, and of this Institute. The idea arose from that meeting to seek an inter-American agreement on human rights education and, contrary to other proposals that require a decade to be put into practice, this one was implemented very quickly. The General Assembly approved this agreement and reaffirmed the principle that human rights education is, in itself, a right and an essential task for democracy. We hope to develop this initiative with the Institute and, to this end, have signed an agreement on education and human rights in democracy.

The foregoing derives from a concept of democracy that has been developed in recent years and which is evidently at the heart of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, an ambitious document that, in my opinion, has been interpreted very narrowly at times. I believe it necessary to affirm that the Inter-American Democratic Charter is not simply an instrument designed to sanction countries that break the rules of democracy. Obviously, it must do this; nevertheless, the truth is that the OAS Charter and the amendments introduced in it would be sufficient to carry out that task.

The Inter-American Democratic Charter, inspired by the efforts that we have been making over the last 50 years, at whose heart is the Human Rights System, is what I have called a program or a declaration of principles of the democratic republic; a concept that goes beyond purely electoral factors and how democratic institutions are created, and also deals with how democratic institutions act. Hence, it is a political program that includes the generation of democratic power, the management of democratic power and, above all, the rights of the citizen in a democracy. The Inter-American Democratic Charter confirms democracy as a right of the citizens of this region, an element that no instrument in the world included previously. That right refers not only to the right to vote and to be elected, but also to participate fully in democracy and to the accountability of those in power for the way in which that democracy is managed. In other words, everything related to the institutional and generative aspects of democracy; the republic understood as a government of law and of institutions, and not a government only of individuals. These ambitious goals are the result of the experience of our countries following the era of the dictatorships – the so-called dictatorships of national security in South America – and of the civil wars in Central America, which convinced the region that it must find another way of making real progress in its development; because the Inter-American Democratic Charter also links substantively democracy with development. The only way to do this was to have a permanent and stable institutional system and, within that system, within that democracy understood in a much broader sense that usual, the inter-American Human Rights System plays a fundamental role. In other words, we do not merely have a few institutions; but rather a whole series of ideas and concepts that we are going to be developing over the years. Democracy can always be perfected, but by signing the Inter-American Democratic Charter all our countries assumed a series of commitments and it is those commitments that give us the authority to work within the region, and not only when a democratic norm is broken or fundamental rights are violated. The concept behind the Charter has a broader scope: it is to promote democracy as an asset for all the citizens of the Americas. We are just beginning and we have a long way to go.

I believe that, from this perspective, it is clear that respect for human rights is an essential element, because when such rights are violated we are faced with an unequivocal symptom that the rule of law is being corrupted and that democracy is deteriorating. In the recent past, such situations were very evident, very obvious; the dictatorial regimes of the 1960s, 70s and 80s were characterized – contrary to dictatorial regimes – by a systematic violation of human rights. It is sometimes difficult to make this distinction, but in nations such as ours, where so many coup d’états took place and so many citizens died, victims of criminal attacks by the State, it is difficult to conceive a difference. Nevertheless, I repeat, the dictatorships of the 1960s, 70s and 80s incorporated the violation of human rights as an integral practice and not as an accident, not as an expeditious recourse, but rather as a system that essentially made the violation of human rights a fundamental characteristic and, for the same reason, our inter-American human rights system was so important. Thus the emergence during that period of these entities was so important: they were created not only to defend human rights, but also to protect us from those who in some way were attempting to obliterate those rights. It is precisely this element of the systematic violation of human rights that characterized the dictatorships we experienced in previous decades; all of which may seem strange in the century of human rights and when the Universal Declaration had already been drafted, but, in our region, we had never experienced crimes and violations such as those that took placed in the 1960s, 70s and 80s; never before had the citizens of the region had to resort en masse to the protection provided by the inter-American system.

Some time ago, we had a discussion on this issue within the OAS and the reaction of the representatives of some countries was very moving, in the sense that they recalled, with dates, days, hours and names, the number of people who had been saved and rescued by the action of the Inter-American Human Rights System, which not only protected individuals, but also defended our right to live in democracy. From this point of view, we cannot forget the way in which the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has acted in many of our countries. Some of us have more experience than others in this area; for us, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is identified with the survival of democratic life: its organizations, the visits by the Commission and also of several rapporteurs. The first judgments of the Inter-American Court are seen as landmarks in this struggle, which today has a much greater scope. How can we forget the role played by the Inter-American Commission at the end of the 1980s in relation to the issue of the incompatibility of amnesty laws with the recommendations of the Commission, and the rulings of the Court that resulted in a significant change in the Latin American legal system, with recommendations and changes that reflected the claims of the victims and their next of kin. These were not merely ideological issues raised by civil society organizations that refused to accept that the dictatorships should end in impunity. How can we forget the repeal of the laws concerning disrespect for public authorities, the adoption of laws on access to public information, the laws on due process, the laws that punish domestic violence, the adoption of public policies designed to eliminate forced labor, the norms that condemn violence against women – a meeting is being held on this issue today in Costa Rica – the guarantees for the political participation of indigenous peoples.. These are only some examples of the real, specific impact of the Inter-American Human Rights System on the establishment of democracy in our region.

Today, most States comply with the Inter-American Court’s case law, which serves as a guideline for many supreme courts in the region. However, the Inter-American Human Rights System is not a completed system, just as democracy still has many goals to attain. Our inter-American system is not yet a universal system – understood as the universe of the Americas – because not all the countries of the region are members of the system; not all the countries of the region have signed and ratified the American Convention on Human Rights, not all our countries have accepted the Court’s jurisdiction and, in many cases, not all our countries comply with its judgments or decisions. It is true that the rate of compliance is good; the system works, it is not a system in crisis; but the universalization of the system is absolutely essential as regards membership and compliance.

We can be satisfied with the institutional development of our Human Rights System, especially our Commission and our Court, when all the countries have signed the Convention; when they have all ratified it, and when they all accept the Court’s jurisdiction, and when the rate of compliance is almost perfect. In other words, when we declare that the Court’s jurisdiction is accepted, this means that it is accepted by all the countries. There are still limitations in this regard; nevertheless it is important to indicate that most countries have signed and ratified the Convention and accepted the Court’s jurisdiction, even though at times they find it difficult to accept its decisions. Hence, we do not have a complete system.

Some of the largest countries of the Americas are still not full members of the Iinter-American Human Rights System and, also – something that could seem merely a question of finance, although financial factors are very important in the countries of our region – is the insufficient support for an Inter-American Human Rights System such as the one we have; the declarations sometimes exceed the resources made available for the organs of the inter-American system to be able to comply with their obligations. It is still an incomplete and fragile system. In this regard, the first thing we need to recognize and understand is that full implementation of the system constitutes a permanent struggle. And, when I refer to full implementation I am not referring merely to the three entities that I have already mentioned. There are other entities of the inter-American system that also have substantive responsibilities in the defense of specific rights, such as the Inter-American Commission for Women (women’s issues are not only related to the issue of violence; there is also the question of real gender equality); and such as the Inter-American Children’s Institute, which is also holding a meeting in Costa Rica at this time, and that is responsible for the defense of this group, which at times receives so little protection in a continent where the depressing statistics inform us that one of every four young people neither studies nor works. Thus, in this area also, there is an essential task to be performed.

The defense of the entire system is an essential element of democracy and the threats arise from two sources, in addition to a certain tendency towards non-compliance. The first source is the same as the one from which the main problems of the insufficient development of our democracy arise: shortcomings in the functioning of our institutions; failure to obey the law, and the enormous inadequacy of our judicial systems; all factors which mean that many of the rights have been established, but they are not accessible to the population. Our studies on the defense of women’s rights often conclude that there is no one to whom a complaint of domestic violence can be made, or that there is insufficient protection for women and children, and that, in short, the judicial system is very inadequate. Thus a first major problem in our Human Rights System is the absence of an adequate State institutional framework to protect these rights.

Nevertheless, there are other factors that do not arise from the political system itself, and one of them is the problem of poverty and discrimination. Some people deal with these two elements separately, but I prefer to deal with them together for one simple reason: when we say that, in Latin America and the Caribbean there are 190 million people living in poverty, we must take into account that most of them belong to the original ethnic groups and that most Afro-American citizens are also poor, and that a disproportionate number of single-parent homes headed by a woman are poor. Thus, speaking of poverty in Latin America is speaking of a poverty that has a gender, a race and a color; it is not just any poverty; it is a poverty that it clearly discriminatory, and therefore the issues of poverty and discrimination are issues that jeopardize very substantially the full exercise of human rights in Latin America.

It is very rare to find a serious problem in our region that cannot be traced to these factors. Fernando Henrique Cardoso once said with regard to Brazil – and I consider that it applies to the whole of Latin America: our continent is not a poor continent, it is an unjust continent. In Latin America there are too many poor people for the level of development we have attained and the problem of injustice, discrimination and poverty is undoubtedly one of the two main ones that we face today when trying to make human rights effective.

In this region that we are all so proud of, there have been no wars for a long time. Indeed the last real war was the “war of El Chaco” in the 1920s; nevertheless, conversely, at least half the 10 countries with the highest murder rate in the world are located in this region. This is one of the most violent regions of the planet, and it is paradoxical; some regions compete because they have wars among themselves, but this region does not have wars and competes as regards the number of violent deaths committed in relation to the rest of the world. There are several cities in our region in which the crime rate is no longer measured, as in other regions, in terms of number of deaths for every 100,000 inhabitants, but in deaths for every thousand: 1, 1.2, 1.3 for every 1,000; there are cities in Latin America in which more than 100 people are killed each year for every 100,000 inhabitants.

This is a region where the highest number of kidnappings in the world are committed each year. In the simplest terms, according to data from the World Health Organization, the crime rate or the violent death rate in the world is 12 for every 100,000 inhabitants; in Africa it is 22 for every 100,000 inhabitants, and in Latin American it is 23 or 24 for every 100,000 inhabitants, and there are at least nine countries in which the rate exceeds 50 for every 100,000 inhabitants. It is interesting that these figures were issued by the World Health Organization. You are probably aware that WHO considers that an epidemic exists when there are 10 cases of a disease among 100,000 inhabitants; in a city with one million inhabitants, if there are 100 cases of hepatitis then, according to WHO, there is an epidemic. Well, in our region there are numerous cities with one million inhabitants in which more than 100 murders are committed; in other words, we face a real epidemic because we find ourselves in a situation in which, at the center of our fight for democracy and human rights, there is a crime wave such as our region has never experienced before.

People ask me: “Has the human rights situation in Honduras improved?” I think that it has in part, but the problem is that Honduras is a country where there are 59 murders for every 100,000 inhabitants. It is difficult to say what causes these murders, especially when they occur in the two main cities and there are different versions; hence we have a situation that jeopardizes the security, health, and physical safety of our citizens and that also corrupts our democracy. Inter-personal violence and common crime are part of the problem, but we are all aware that here we are looking at organized crime linked to drug-trafficking together with indiscriminate weapons trafficking, which goes on in both directions, from the south to the north and then back to the south, weapons for the armies of the drug-traffickers who are every day more powerful and compete with the continent’s police and armed forces. Violence against individuals involved in drug trafficking and use, organized crime, people smuggling, and money laundering are related problems.

Consequently, I believe that this is a threat related to the issues of poverty, discrimination and inequality. But these elements, together with the absence of an institutional framework in which to demand respect for the rights of the people, constitute one aspect of the problem and, hence, it is important that our Inter-American Human Rights System also consider this type of problem as it has done in recent years. The case I have mentioned from the report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on violence against women, or the recent study on human rights and public security, reveal a system that is actively concerned about the major scourges that affect our society. Of course, the pact on economic and social rights is also a way of dealing with the problem. The Inter-American Democratic Charter indicates that there is no democracy without development and a minimum of social justice.

These issues are clearly linked, although the issue of human rights has its limits and a concept that can cover everything should not be overextended, because then it becomes irrelevant. The issue of human rights has its limits but, undoubtedly, it is connected to all the problems that I have mentioned and that make it very difficult to speak of democratic societies fully governed by respect for the rights of the people when there are still the institutional weaknesses, poverty and crime that we see in our region.

In this regard, education is key to strengthening the democratic institutional framework, achieving greater social equality, generating employment, and combating violence, and this places the issue of education at the heart of any development strategy. When we speak of democracy, it is not a question of asking who should be sanctioned, who should be punished, who should be destroyed or who should be reprimanded, but rather of how are we going to support and how are we going to educate. I do not believe that the actions of international bodies should be repressive; rather they should be educational; and I believe that we should end for ever the concept of intervention and replace it by that of international cooperation.

The same is true with regard to human rights and should be true in other areas also. In other words, we must replace the idea of sanctioning those who commit specific bad deeds by the idea of promoting certain values to ensure that things get done well. We must denounce the violation of human rights and protect those whose rights are being infringed; we must protect the weak to ensure that their rights are not trampled underfoot, but we must try and educate society to avoid violations being committed, so that this denunciation, defense and protection become increasingly less necessary. We cannot have a purely defensive system. From this perspective, although defense actions tend to examine past, current or imminent violations, we must promote an education that is dedicated to preventing future violations.

The goals are the same, but we must pay more attention to education. Education that consists, first, in promoting the values of respect for human rights in society and, second, in teaching people how they can recognize and assert their rights in dealing with the State. Clearly we are no longer in the classic era of the social pact in which, according to Hobbes and Rousseau, the individual exchanged some of his liberty for security provided by the State and, therefore, became a subject of a political power that offered him protection. The exchange is no longer obedience in exchange for security. The citizen in a democratic society confers legitimacy on those who govern him; he not only promises obedience, but also confers legitimacy. In exchange for what? In exchange for liberty and respect for his rights. The social pact has changed fundamentally. During the years I lived in exile in Europe, I was always surprised by how little the expression “gobernante” (member of the governing class) was used, and how much the expression “mandatario” (leader, person with a mandate) was used. I have just read that there are scientific systems under which it is possible to consider documents in another way, and even that, by studying the original manuscript of the American Constitution, it has been discovered that Thomas Jefferson erased the word “subjects” and replaced it with the word “citizens.” This is precisely the meaning of the democratic pact, namely: “I grant you legitimacy and you grant me citizenship and respect my rights.” In our society there are many who still believe that government consists of subordination and submission in exchange for protection; but that is not the case and we must educate the citizens, in the sense of conferring legitimacy on the governing class in exchange for those who govern respecting the political, social and legal rights of their citizenry. This could begin from a very early age, but we have a very substantial effort to make, because there is still an enormous amount of ground to cover by the citizenry; the citizens of our region are not sufficiently aware of their rights and do not know how to make them effective; they have no knowledge of their judicial systems and their social security systems, and many of the poor in our region are unaware of the subsidies and resources that the State provides for them.

Human rights education must include these issues; it is not merely education about respect for liberty and life, but also about respect for the rights that citizens enjoy in a modern State; it involves education, health, employment, and everything that a modern society is obliged to provide to its citizens.

In the OAS we are aware of the importance of human rights education. We have been implementing an inter-American program of democratic values and practices since 2005 in partnership with Governments and international and civil society organizations to try and create a democratic culture through education. We have formulated and implemented hemispheric initiatives complementing Government efforts and executed technical projects. We work with the Member States at the regional and subregional level, and we finance a series of projects through a multilateral special fund, working with organizations such as UNICEF, UNESCO, the World Bank, IDB and others; however, much still remains to be done in this area.

Someone said that the great wealth of our region lies in its immense diversity. This may be true; it is an immense challenge also. We can interpret this diversity in the sense that each member of this great society should not lose his cultural identity and, at the same time, should progress and be ensured the access to the goods provided to him by modern culture. How can we ensure that all citizens receive at least the same basic goods and services? How can we ensure that the State guarantees determined rights to people in the area of education, health and housing as part of citizenship? How can we provide ways or measuring the quality of goods and services? How can we respond, for example, to the growing right to early childhood education – a matter that is respected so little in this region – whereas scientists advise us that the formation of children aged from 0 to 5 years is fundamental for their future development, in circumstances in which not even 10 percent of children receive pre-schooling in our region. We do not have answers to all these questions, but we must make an effort to try and answer them and, in this regard, you can count on the participation of our Organization of American States.

Latin American democracy is young. The democratic idea is old; the struggle for democracy is also fairly old, but in reality democratic governments such as those we know today have only existed for the last 30 years. We have had democratic stability since the beginning of the 1990s, with the exceptions and backslides that we all know. Honduras was a problem; there are other countries where rights such as freedom of expression are demanded and there are other difficulties such as internal threats, but, basically, we are advancing by a complex and stony path. I evaluate positively the progress of democracy in the region. No one can deny that we have made progress with regard to human rights, although much more progress is still needed, and this is not merely – I repeat – in the way in which we elect those who govern us, but basically relates to the enhancement of our democratic institutions, of our human rights institutions, and, above all, to the strengthening of the culture of respect for individual rights based on a new conception of the social pact.

I relieve that this is the route we have chosen to channel our activities for the coming decades. Many young people are just starting on this path and I invite them to take part in the enormous task of building up the inter-American system together with its principal star: the Inter-American Human rights System.

Thank you very much