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October 12, 2011 - Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

I would like to thank the Chairperson of the African Union, Mr. Jean Ping, and the AU Member States for your generous offer to be the venue for this momentous Forum, which will allow us, AU and OAS Member States, as well as AU Commission and OAS Secretariat, to discuss the “Challenges and Opportunities in the Promotion and Defense of Democracy and Human Rights in Africa and the Americas”. We have appreciated your warm welcome for our arrival and the efficient arrangements you have put in place for the Forum with the cooperation of your host country, Ethiopia.

This Forum is a follow-up to the first “Democracy Bridge Forum” that the OAS hosted in our headquarters in Washington DC over four years ago, in June 2007. That highly successful exchange began the move toward the closer relationship that our two organizations have since been pursuing. Following the Forum OAS Member States adopted two General Assembly Resolutions in 2008 and in 2009 on “Support for Enhanced Inter-regional Cooperation with the African Union” to signal their backing for the intensification of this collaboration. In 2010 and 2011 OAS Member States adopted resolutions calling for the “Recognition of the Year for People of African Descent”, as well as continued and enhanced cooperation with the African Union.

Stronger inter-regional understanding is now being fostered in several contexts around the world. The United Nations Secretary General has sponsored high-level dialogues among regional institutions. And both the OAS and the African Union are currently participating in the global Inter-Regional Dialogue on Democracy, launched last year by International IDEA, in which our two institutions, together with five other regional institutions around the world, exchange information and views on questions of mutual concern. Through events such as this we are better able to confront global challenges and to strengthen democracy and human rights throughout the world.

The Inter-American Democratic Charter

In the Americas, democracy has traveled a long and difficult path to establish itself and be recognized as the only legitimate political system. While all the independent countries of the Americas are members of the OAS, they have freely agreed that democracy is the only form of government recognized by our region. The first article of the Inter-American Democratic Charter enshrines it as a “right of the peoples of the Americas.” And it is the obligation of governments of the Americas to promote and defend it. It is the key role of the Organization of American States to develop, strengthen, and safeguard it.

Our region is proud to have been at the forefront of the global trend toward greater representative democratic government. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the unanimous adoption of the Inter-American Democratic Charter on September 11, 2001, at a special session of the OAS General Assembly in Lima, Peru, which culminated a decade of efforts to consolidate OAS action toward democracy. The Inter-American Democratic Charter provides a broad definition of democracy and sets forth its essential components, the means of selecting its leaders, recognition of the civil, political, and social citizenship of its inhabitants, and basic rules of conduct for its governments. The Charter transcends the idea of democracy as only consisting of elections. While free and fair elections are necessary for democracy, they are not sufficient. The Democratic Charter sets forth a common framework, including the respect of human rights, separation of powers through the three branches of government, freedom of speech and of the press and a pluralistic system of political parties, among others. Like every political program, the Charter incorporates an ideal to be pursued–the goal and the values for which power should be exercised.

At present I can say that all of the governments in the Americas who are actively participating in the OAS have come to power as a result of free and transparent elections. OAS electoral observation missions provide a guarantee of free and transparent elections and lend credibility to electoral processes and outcomes.

The establishment of a stable institutional system is a fundamental and necessary aspect of democracy. During the 10 years the Democratic Charter has existed, democratic institutions have been consolidated in the Americas, and governance in our countries has become more stable. However, our institutions are still weak in many cases and certain trends persist that prevent their strengthening, in particular frequent changes in the rules of the democratic game, the lack of independence of the judiciary, threats to freedom of expression and freedom of the press, excessive concentration of media ownership, and systematic attacks on journalists by organized crime. All of this is harmful to the republican power structure and strikes at the foundations on which democracy is based.

The Inter-American Democratic Charter embodies a collective mechanism for defending democracy in the region. Anticipating the emergence of situations of instability and political crisis, its regulatory framework provided for diplomatic measures and mechanisms for joint action to defend the democratic system and the legitimate exercise of power. During the last 10 years, these tools have played a fundamental role in preventing the outbreak of political crises and the exacerbation of destabilizing situations. The OAS has demonstrated the capacity to act preventively in at least seven situations that affected or jeopardized the development of democratic political institutions or the legitimate exercise of power and thereby avoided unconstitutional alterations and interruptions of the democratic order. Likewise, in the face of alterations of the constitutional regime that seriously undermined the democratic system, as in the case of Honduras in 2009, the pertinent articles of Chapter IV of the Democratic Charter were fully applied in a timely fashion, leading to the suspension of Honduras from active participation in the OAS for two years.

Our action in the case of Honduras established a fundamental precedent: through demonstrating that an attack on democracy in the region will entail high diplomatic, political, and economic costs. But we saw that action under the Charter comes at a high cost which is detrimental to the population and to the country concerned. In looking at the seven cases in which the Democratic Charter has been successfully applied, it becomes clear that prevention is much more beneficial and effective than the application of sanctions after the fact.

Despite the achievements and advances made under the Charter, much remains to be done in this process of consolidating democracy and in promoting and defending human rights. In the final analysis, the decision to apply the Inter-American Democratic Charter preventively or in response to interruptions of the democratic order will always depend on the will of the Member State concerned and on the consensus or majority positions of the other member states. This is not an insignificant matter, especially compared with other decision-making models used multilaterally. The implementation of the Charter and of any proposals presented to make its application more effective must be viewed in the context of a search for consensus among all OAS Member States and within the parameters set by the principles of nonintervention and noninterference.

The Inter-American Human Rights System

Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are recognized as an essential element of representative democracy and were included as a fundamental part of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Our human rights system has been instrumental in supporting more representative government in the region. Human rights have been on the OAS agenda since the Organization was established. In April 1948, the States, gathered in Colombia, adopted the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, the first international human rights instrument of a general nature. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, headquartered in Washington DC was established in 1959, and was followed by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, established in Costa Rica in 1979. These institutions have a long history in our region and have supported important advances in human rights through the resolution of individual cases and the rapporteurships to protect collective rights of the most vulnerable in society.

To date, the Commission has received more than 15,000 petitions and cases, and has referred more than 150 cases to our Inter-American Court of Human Rights, comparable to your African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

The Inter-American Human Rights System has contributed to developing and strengthening democratic systems in the Americas by issuing decisions and judgments regarding the rule of law, respect for the rights to life and personal integrity, the absolute prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, respect for the right to personal liberty, the principles of equality and non-discrimination, and the obligation to ensure the rights to due process and judicial protection, among many others. Notably, the Inter-American Commission and Court have established the incompatibility of amnesty laws that shield perpetrators from accountability with the American Convention and with the right of victims and their families to judicial protection and due process guarantees. These decisions and judgments opened the door for fundamental changes in judicial systems and generated a strong movement against impunity in various countries in the region. Both the Inter-American Commission and the Court have been in the forefront in taking decisions concerning the need for the States to apply due diligence in the investigation and punishment of human rights violations committed by both state and non-state actors.

The elimination of all forms of discrimination constitutes an essential component in the strengthening of democracy, as reflected in the inter-American Democratic Charter. The Commission and the Court have issued a substantial number of decisions aimed at combating the discrimination and marginalization that certain groups and sectors of the population have traditionally suffered, including women, indigenous peoples, afro-descendents, migrant workers, and persons deprived of liberty, among others. In their decisions, the Commission and Court have also highlighted the link between ensuring the enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression and the consolidation and development of democracy, as well as the importance of guaranteeing the right of access to information in order to ensure greater transparency and accountability of governmental activities and the strengthening of democratic institutions.

These decisions and judgments, as well as the results of friendly settlements carried out between victims and States, have prompted many advances in the domestic protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the State level. Full compliance with these decisions remains a constant challenge across our region, however, States have derogated or amended domestic legislation to make them compatible with human rights standards or have engaged in major overhauls in State policy and governmental practices.

Our human rights system has also highlighted the importance of the link between citizen security, human rights and democracy. Citizen security is certainly today, one of the main concerns of societies and governments in the Americas and all over the world. Citizen security is undermined whenever States fail to protect their population from crime and social violence, signaling a breakdown in the relationship between those governing and the governed. However, States are responsible under international law in case its armed forces exceed the acceptable limits. A human rights perspective enables the issues of crime and violence, and their impact in citizen security, to be tackled through the strengthening of democratic participation and the implementation of policies focused on the protection of the individual instead of those focused on the security of the State.

Both the Inter-American and the African human rights systems have experienced a continued evolution since their creation. Part of the richness of regional human rights mechanisms is precisely their ability to adapt to the situation and the needs of the region. Regional human rights mechanisms can be dynamic, flexible, and respond to the specific characteristics of the society. Regional institutions are a useful space for dialogue among States who share many of the same challenges and aspirations. An inter-regional forum such as this one is an excellent opportunity to share these challenges and dialogue about lessons learned and moving forward.

Inequity in the Americas

Before I end, I should mention that another threat to democracy and human rights in the Americas is poverty and inequity. Undeniable advances have been made in the Americas in reducing poverty and extreme poverty and in increasing citizen inclusion and participation in forging and expanding democracy. Nonetheless, our region still has high rates of poverty compared to its level of development. Moreover, these socioeconomic differences are influenced by color, ethnic origin, gender, and a specific geographic distribution. In point of fact, poverty and discrimination produce different categories of citizens, with different rights, which tend to become hereditary as a result of unequal opportunity. This runs counter to democracy. It is in the positive transformation of people’s lives and in increased opportunities that democracy becomes meaningful and relevant and that citizenship becomes a reality rather than an ideal. The problem of inequality is the main challenge in the Americas, despite our region being much more democratic than before. The inequalities that persist prevent democracy from being all that it can be to fulfill the aspirations of our citizens. Also extremely detrimental to the full exercise of democratic citizenship are drug trafficking and the action of organized criminal gangs, both of which challenge democratic institutions and have a fertile ground under poverty conditions. Crime can become a serious threat to democracy when it seeks to control territory, murder those who attack and report it, and operate according to its own laws. The full exercise of women’s citizenship is still a pending task for democracy throughout the world. In spite of the advances made in legislation and in the recognition of women’s human rights in the majority of countries over the last fifty years, with some exceptions the daily practice of politics still suffers from the lack of real equality and parity in political representation.

I have said this a number of forums, but I must reiterate that “…inequality and the under-representation of women in the legislative, executive and judicial sphere, as well as in the leadership of political parties are a critical indicators of the deficits of our democracies and our rule of law” (Insulza, 2011). The lack of equal representation of women in the political field and economic affairs must be addressed.

The OAS-AU Cooperation

Member States representatives, colleagues from the AU Commission and OAS Secretariat, dialogue between the regional systems is essential to continue confronting the pending challenges. The continuation of cooperation between the OAS and the AU in the protection and promotion of human and peoples’ rights will further strengthen each regional system’s capacity to respond more efficiently to the needs of its users. We need to continue developing common human rights principles, minimum standards applicable to every human being. In this path, the African Union and the OAS have much to learn from one another in seeking common standards across their human rights systems.

Both of our organizations are committed to similar objectives. Recognition of these similarities and potential synergies led to the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding in October 2009, just two years ago, which now provides an umbrella for our collaborative efforts. The MOU establishes a higher level of cooperation between our two organizations specifically on issues relating to the promotion of democracy and strengthening of democratic institutions and processes, conflict resolution, protection of human and peoples’ rights and social and economic development, as well as any other areas of common interest that may be defined in the future by the parties. The MOU represents a historic step in the building of a strategic alliance and partnership between us. With the greater knowledge of each other we have today we were able to finalize a Joint Work Plan.

Over the past two years we have carried out exchanges between your Commission experts and our Secretariat experts. We have observed elections on our respective continents. Three specialists as well as the Chief of the Electoral Observation Section from the OAS Department of Electoral Cooperation and Observation (DECO) joined in the observation of the elections in Togo in March 2010. In exchange, a representative from the African Union was invited to participate as an observer in the OAS-CARICOM Joint Electoral Observation Mission (JEOM) for the Haitian presidential elections in November 2010.

In the area of human rights our two organizations have been collaborating closely over these past two years. Experts from the IACHR and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) have been exchanging contacts and visits which have periodically included joint participation in working meetings in both the Americas and in Africa. Our Inter-American Commission on Human Rights welcomed representatives and experts from both the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights last year in June (2010) when we hosted a two-week long series of meetings and exchanges at OAS Headquarters with the purpose of strengthening cooperation between our two human rights commissions. There has been ongoing exchange and sharing of information in areas such as case law, thematic rapporteurships, on-site visits, country reports, and measures to implement regional human rights norms and decisions. A recent project undertaken by our Inter-American Commission on Human Rights with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has deepened this cooperation.

Our respective Special Rapporteurs on Freedom of Expression of the OAS and the African Union have participated, together with the Special Rapporteurs from the United Nations and OSCE, in issuing Joint Declarations on key issues such as “Framework for Media and Elections” in 2009 and on “Ten Key Threats to Freedom of Expression” in 2010.

We were pleased to have hosted Chairperson Ping of the African Union as a guest speaker in our Lecture Series of the Americas last April (2011) at OAS headquarters, where he gave a presentation on challenges to democracy in Africa that was broadcast not only to our audience but to those around the Americas by webcast. During that same month the OAS and the African Union both participated in the first meeting of the Inter-Regional Dialogue on Democracy, initiated and sponsored by International IDEA and where we welcomed the heads and high-level representatives of seven regional organizations from around the world at the OAS to speak on how to better develop and support democracy and democratic institutions.

The collective efforts of Member States acting within their respective organizations are defining a new role for these institutions and are demonstrating that it is more beneficial to act together rather than alone in order to solve the critical challenges we face. By joining our forces we can be even more effective in achieving our objectives and in ensuring that regional integration and inter-regional cooperation will translate into more democracy, more freedom and greater benefits for our people. That is the ultimate importance of the joint efforts between the African Union, the OAS and International IDEA that we began some years ago. The political will is here, represented by this, the largest delegation of OAS Member States to visit another regional institution in its history. We look forward to continue advancing together in this direction in the near future.

Thank you.