Media Center



September 12, 2012 - Washington, DC

I am really happy to be here participating in this event commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of the Human Rights Course. I also extend my warmest greetings to all the participants.

A year ago the topic of this course was included in a process that began some time ago: the process of a dialogue taking place within the Organization of American States and which central objective is to strengthen the Inter-American Human Rights System. The discussion has been carried out through a process that must be based on dialogue – never on imposition – and that must be respectful of the necessary autonomy of the organs that comprise the Inter-American Human Rights System. This should, at the same time, take place in close partnership with the states and with the governments of Latin America, the Caribbean, and North America, since the situation of the countries of the region is rather different from the one they were experiencing at the various phases of the Commission’s history. That’s why this course is so important; it talks about both the history of the current debate and future prospects. It is, therefore, crucial to start with the evolution of the debate, with the situation in which we now find ourselves, and with the new challenges we have to tackle.

I will try to keep my comments brief, to give more emphasis to the course, and thus, allow sufficient time to answer your questions. Well, I think the first thing to remember is that the issue of human rights has been in the inter-American system since its inception. The American Declaration on the Rights of Man–that’s how it was originally called–was issued a few months before the UN Universal Declaration; thus, concern for the defense of the rights of the person has been quite a substantial part of the international system for the entire post-war period. It had its origin, or its first expression, in the Organization of American States, in the inter-American system.

I would venture to say, however, that in the early years, in the first two decades, what was being sought through the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights was actually an effort to spread human rights. What gave the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights its main character was, interestingly and paradoxically, the conflicts that arose in our region in the 1960s, in the 1970s, and during the remaining decades of the last century. That was the period of dictatorships, of national security in South America, in most of the Southern Cone countries. It was also the period of the wars in Central America–and today we are also marking the beginning of its end at another ceremony. And, since we’re talking about the war in Central America, it is the one that caused the most human victims throughout the history of the twentieth century in Latin America.

The need to discuss, debate and promote therefore also gave rise at that moment to the opportunity to take action, and it was not easy for the Organization of American States to act. At that time, it was quite complex, basically because some of the protagonists of the greatest violations were sitting in the OAS Council.

I sincerely believe that –and he recently joined us at a seminar in Washington– the pressure exerted by President Jimmy Carter’s administration to strengthen the Inter-American Human Rights System was crucial in this respect. He made the issue of human rights a central policy, and thus, gave the Commission’s effort an enormous push and great legitimacy to confront governments that, precisely because of what was happening, were sorely lacking in legitimacy. It was a period in which the Commission was very diligent: if you go to certain countries in South America, you will find that beyond what governments say, the Human Rights Commission is viewed as an integral part of OAS efforts in human rights and is seen as an integral part of the struggle that was waged in those years to bring about democracy.

And as a result, over all these years -and it’s been in existence for many years- the Commission and the inter-American system have earned tremendous admiration and great respect in the international community. Indeed, its reputation also expanded during the latter half of the 1970s; and it was right here in San José, Costa Rica, that the American Convention on Human Rights was adopted. It is probably our cornerstone despite the fact that several of its member states have not ratified or recognized the jurisdiction of the Court. The Convention somehow remains the main pillar supporting our work in the field of human rights, as well as the main piece of legislation at our disposal, in addition to the statutes of the Commission and the Court, and other instruments.

This all occurred during a period in which there were dictatorships in Latin America. Democracy was just beginning to become an objective in 1979, the same year that the American Convention on Human Rights entered into force, thus enabling the establishment of the Court and begin its work. The influence that the Human Rights System was exerting was building up during this period of democratization allowing it to play a key role in the years that would follow. With the significant changes the region had undergone with the birth and consolidation of the democratization process over the last 20 years, the context became more and more conducive to the development of our doctrine and our policy in the area of human rights.

In this sense, there are important things to consider: the alignment of the legal system with international rules for human rights protection as one example. Let us not forget that several countries of the region have incorporated into their constitutions the provisions to comply with international human rights treaties, as well as a series of specific rules; modification of even the school curriculum to incorporate not only the study of the most recent history of the countries, but also the study of human rights as an independent subject; the creation, within the state apparatus in many countries, of government entities to monitor the internal human rights situation, office of defenders(ombudsman?), subsidiary secretariats, etc.; and, in the inter-American system it has been enshrined as a benchmark for states in the area of drafting public policies on human rights.

Certainly, here too, we have found that–and it is something that probably occurred less so before– in recent decades the Inter-American Human Rights System has been empowered with civil society. Civil society first came on the scene in very tough times through constant demands for justice and rejection of impunity, often at the risk of their life or freedom. Civil society also played a role in transforming the politics of our hemisphere and, with that, forged a very powerful link with the Inter-American Human Rights System, which we cannot ignore. Civil society allows us to constantly focus our attention on new issues that arise, new consensus and opportunities to develop new standards for human rights protection. It is true, however, that in recent times there has been important discussions about the system itself.

In delivering the first part of my remarks before going into detail, what I wanted to do was to make an assertion. The Inter-American Human Rights System; the Commission, which is part of the OAS–strictly speaking–although an independent entity; the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which is derived from the Convention and is certainly interrelated to the OAS (it was adopted by an OAS General Assembly) but is derived from the American Convention and, therefore, in the election of its members, it is important to underscore that only those countries that have signed and ratified the Convention and have recognized the jurisdiction of the Court can participate.

Unlike the Human Rights Commission whose members are elected by all OAS member states, the Court is elected exclusively by those that have signed the Convention. And the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights, which is also -so to speak- even more autonomous and is part of this inter-American human rights system that we all want to defend and strengthen.

From the standpoint of the Organization of American States, the institution that I lead as Secretary General, it is enriched by the discussion that we are conducting on strengthening the inter-American human rights system. International agencies have often been criticized for their permanence when they no longer make sense, but when an international organization begins to be involved in actions designed not to enhance its presence, it is committing an act of decay that is very hard to reverse, and, therefore, I want to make it clear that there is no intention in any way to weaken the inter-American human rights system–quite the contrary.

In fact, the intention has been to strengthen the system as stipulated by the General Assembly in San Salvador in 2011, which created a special working group to reflect on the workings of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights with a view to strengthen the system. This was accompanied by a debate that took place a few months ago at the Cochabamba General Assembly to consider the findings of the Working Group and the results of the dialogue that is expected to begin with the Commission, not only with the members of the Commission but also, and very importantly, with the support of civil society.

What are, in my view, the main issues, the main challenges facing the Inter-American Human Rights System today?

The first issue, of course, is the universal membership of the 35 countries of the Americas to the inter-American human rights system–we certainly hope that all 35 countries of the Americas were. Not all of them are members of the Court, but all are members of the Commission and must be members of it, and to withdraw from the Commission means denouncing the OAS Charter. And, fortunately, to date no one has proposed that.

As you know, all the states of the Americas are members of the OAS. It is often said incorrectly that Cuba was expelled, but Cuba was never expelled from the OAS, because the Charter does not allow it. The Charter clearly states that the members are all independent countries of the Americas that agree to sign the Charter. The Commission, therefore, does not have a membership problem; the Court does, because -if I am not mistaken- since the withdrawal of Trinidad and Tobago when it objected to some opinions of the Court on the issue of the death penalty, it is my understanding that only some of the Caribbean countries recognize the jurisdiction of the Court.

The Court is primarily made up of its Latin American members. We have made a great deal of effort in recent years that, I believe, could result in success in having several more Caribbean states recognize the jurisdiction of the Court, to accede to it, and to even include some judges elected to the Court. Again, we have two people from the Caribbean on the Commission and the Commission has no such difficulty, which is what makes it particularly troubling that a Latin American country would, at this time, decide to denounce the Convention. It goes against what we want to achieve; furthermore, it somehow creates a specter because frankly speaking, neither Canada nor the United States are members of the Court and neither one votes to elect its the members. The members of the Court are today mostly Latin American, and if I am not mistaken, there is one Canadian who is eligible, but by countries that have signed the Convention. What we have to do is to get all of the countries to become part of the Commission and the Court and, hopefully, to also support the Institute, a matter on which substantial progress has been made.

That is the first problem to be resolved because, if it is not, in view of some of the problems that arise and which the Commission cannot resolve, resorting to the Court means discrimination among OAS member states. A few months ago, for instance, a serious conflict arose over a recommendation by the Human Rights Commission to the government of a Latin American country concerning the issue of a dam under construction. Naturally, that country was not only concerned about the Commission’s decision, but also about this issue being brought to the Court. A similar problem arose in one of the two North American countries, and it did not reach the Commission. But had it reached the Commission, the big difference would have been that the Commission would have been unable to bring the issue to the Court since that country is not a member, and this triggers a certain irritation and conflict among countries, over the fact that within the inter-American system we are not all members of the same institutions. That is one of the first problems.

A second problem is that of compliance. The issue of compliance will always be a challenge for the Commission, which, I repeat, recommends, suggests, proposes and decides whether or not to take a case to the Court. The scope of the Inter-American Court is also limited in the absence of instruments to reprimand countries that do not comply with its binding decisions. Why is that a problem? Well, because naturally, as with human rights issues in general, the offender is a person linked to the state, and governments often do not like the judgments, decisions, or recommendations of the Court, and that’s a reality we have to deal with.

I think, however, that we have had a reasonable level of compliance, albeit not total, and we have to work very decisively to secure compliance through goodwill, in good faith. Sometimes the Court issues a judgment that means the state must change its laws on a particular subject area, as it occurred in my country with the issues related to citizens’ access to information. The law had to be changed: those are the rules we have, and we want countries to abide by them.

The third major problem is more mundane; it is that of resources. Accompanying us today are the Executive Secretary and the Chairman of the Commission, who will tell you how many cases are pending -several thousand are pending in the Commission on Human Rights- and at the same time that the system is moving at a faster pace sending more cases to the Court, and that the resources we have are not enough to cover all those cases. The resources provided by the states, which are regular funds from the annual budget, are enough to cover half of the expenses of the inter-American system, and the other half comes from donations from the same OAS states or observer countries. What we have then is a complicated bottleneck: a few days ago, we were with the Chairman of the Commission at a seminar in Lima and a gentleman inquired as to when it would rule on his case, which had been in the pipeline for several years. Perhaps his case was without merit, but the problem is there.

With these three issues –I do not want to get into others because I don’t have a lot of time-dialogue between the Inter-American Commission and its member states is indispensable. No one but the member states will solve the membership, the compliance and the lack of resources issues. It is from them that the necessary resources must come from. Now, I know that many will continue to contribute, and there will be special donations and a number of other things, especially once Europe overcomes the crisis it is facing, which has somewhat affected us. But the reality is that it is basically the member states that have to make contributions in good faith and willingly.

Strengthening the system cannot be resolved except through dialogue, through a process which, in my opinion, is starting out on a very good footing, and I am very optimistic about it. This process underscores the vital role that human rights organizations play, and that is why I am so happy to have come the day after the Chairman of the Commission made his presentation and after the debate took place there, because civil society must be involved as well. Most of all, we can be satisfied with the willingness demonstrated by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to analyze, examine and find solutions to the issues raised by the countries.

I have to be very frank with you: sometimes countries raise problems that have no solution; they are issues that have to be seen by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, because human rights abuses are still being committed in our region, and also because the field of human rights has expanded to establish a number of related issues. Environmental protection, or protection of minorities, or matters included in the San Salvador Protocol on cultural, economic, and social rights are new issues that have come to enrich the debate on human rights. Thus, the field has grown significantly, which makes dialogue increasingly necessary because some of these collective elements often involve a willingness on the part of states that is perhaps more complex to deal with.

That is why I believe that this process on which we have embarked is so important; it allows us to bring the countries closer to the inter-American human rights system, allowing us to strengthen it, to identify necessary or desirable measures for it to better fulfill its role in the promotion and protection of human rights; it allows us to suggest to countries steps needed to streamline the system. Secretary Álvarez Icaza’s expertise in this area is well recognized, and internal changes will need to be considered for many of the cases to not necessarily have to go to the Court or through the inter-American system. It facilitates finding amicable solutions to many of the problems; ultimately, it enables our work to be more productive and, at the same time, allows us to better work with our states so they assume that the system is theirs and that they have to not only respect and abide by it, but also finance the system, which is probably, sometimes, the hardest thing to do.

I believe that through active and effective promotion of dialogue among our countries, we can reduce the gap between the statutory recognition of human rights, which is a reality, and its effective implementation, which we have to achieve. We can ensure, at the same time,, that other issues that are related to our agenda must be incorporated, such as the protection for victims, witness protection, a set of measures for our democracies to effectively fulfill their obligations to our societies, and to provide us with an inter-American human rights system that, being strong, being vigorous and able to adapt to the changing times.

This is what we want to achieve. We want to strengthen the system, and I want us to be very clear and very firm on this. As I said before, the Inter-American Human Rights System is but one of the main components of our Organization of American States and sidelining it, weakening it is completely unthinkable for us.

Thank you very much.