Speech by the IACHR Executive Secretary

Remarks by the IACHR Executive Secretary Santiago A. Canton at the reception organized by the staff of the IACHR Executive Secretariat to honor his leadership.

Museum of the Americas, May 17, 2012

Since my announcement, more than a year ago, that I had made a personal decision to end my mandate as IACHR Executive Secretary and was presenting a draft reform of the Rules of Procedure to set in motion a transparent, participatory selection process for the person to head the Executive Secretariat, I have often been asked about my final impressions of the IACHR and the inter-American system.

I believe the work of the IACHR, particularly in the last 40 years, has been vital in preventing, denouncing, and remedying human rights violations. The Commission has been extremely effective in this task, both in the years of dictatorships, during the 1970s, as well as today under democratic regimes.

The Commission's work has been critical in responding both to individual violations and to massive violations. The decisions and standards of the inter-American system are now an integral part of the domestic legal system of several countries in the region. Today, as a result of decisions by the Commission and the Court, constitutional reforms, the implementation of public policies, the enactment and repeal of laws, and changes in practices within the States are the norm, not the exception.

The Commission's work—through the individual petition system, precautionary measures, visits, and rapporteurships—has saved many lives and given dignity back to thousands of people throughout the Americas.

No other institution has done more for democracy, the rule of law, and the human rights of the people of the hemisphere than the Inter-American Commission.

Nevertheless, the success of the inter-American human rights system is still not enough for millions of people who continue to be victims of human rights violations. Disappearances, extrajudicial executions, torture, family violence, discrimination, poverty, illiteracy, and homophobia, among other violations, continue to be words we cannot erase from the dictionary.

The word massacre, which can refer to the disappearance or execution of dozens, hundreds, or thousands of individuals, is in everyday use at the Commission. That is also the case with the violence and structural discrimination that affects lower-income people, women, indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants, children, and gays and lesbians, among others. The inter-American protection system needs to be strengthened to be able to respond to all these challenges.

Consequently, I'm going to take advantage of this opportunity—perhaps my last as Executive Secretary of the IACHR—to reflect for a few minutes on the strengthening of the inter-American system, a subject that is undoubtedly timely.

Distinguished Ambassadors, civil society representatives, OAS and Commission staff, friends: I will continue until the last minute of my mandate as Executive Secretary to insist on the importance of strengthening the inter-American human rights system. After 13 years of directly witnessing the reality of our region, I have no doubt of the essential role the Commission and the Court play in protecting the human rights of millions of people, mainly through the strengthening of our democratic institutions.

I believe there are three main challenges:

Universality: We have an imperfect system when many countries have yet to ratify the American Convention on Human Rights. The reasons for not doing so can be explained, but cannot be justified. As this is a collective protection system, the Member States have the responsibility, individually and collectively, to make the system universal. Faced with a lack of progress in ratification, all Member States that have ratified the American Convention should undertake a collective initiative to reach this objective. It is not enough to denounce publicly but look the other way.

Compliance: Compliance with the decisions of the Commission and the Court is far from ideal. In the majority of cases, human rights violators continue to enjoy absolute impunity. As I mentioned earlier, there has undoubtedly been significant progress; however, the ideal of justice—the cornerstone of our democracies—continues to be difficult to attain.

And finally, the main weakness is a lack of resources. And once again I want to be very clear: The lack of resources is not due to an administrative problem, nor is it a bureaucratic issue, and much less a financial one. It is, purely and simply, a political decision. It is a conscious decision by the Member States and those responsible for the OAS budget.

A budget of only six percent of the regular OAS budget, allocated to one of the main pillars of the Organization, in complete contradiction to the constant expressions of support, is wrong, it is offensive, and—let us not deceive ourselves—it is also a form of control by the Member States over the work of the Commission.

The European counterpart to the OAS, the Council of Europe, allocates approximately 40 percent of its budget for human rights matters.

It should not be necessary to insist on this, but the seriousness of the situation demands it. This lack of support has a direct impact on respect for human rights. The responsibility for the backlog in processing nearly 2,000 complaints per year, a number that is constantly increasing, is due primarily to a shortage of resources. Through the budget, the States can control the Commission's capacity to respond. With an adequate budget, the Commission could process, within a reasonable time, all petitions and urgent protection actions brought against the States, and it could conduct more regular visits, ensuring better compliance with decisions. The work of all the IACHR rapporteurships could also be strengthened more effectively.

These three challenges—universality, compliance, and an adequate budget—are a responsibility of the OAS and the Member States, both individually and collectively. However, after decades of promises, these three challenges continue to fall far short of being met.

Finally, there is the pending challenge of ensuring that the Commission's independence and autonomy, which has been strengthened in practice in the last decades, becomes an undisputed reality. Unfortunately, that is not the situation today.

The time has now come for me to express my gratitude for the chance to have worked at the IACHR for all these years.

First of all, I would like thank the many ambassadors and, through them, the States. This has not been an easy relationship. It must be acknowledged that most of the time they are not pleased with the information I convey to them. I remember one dear ambassador who told me that every time his assistant informed him that I was on the line, the ambassador would sit down, adjust his waistband, and then take the call. He also recommended that I should call every now and then to congratulate them, without necessarily having a specific reason to do so, just to ensure that they would be more receptive to my future calls.

Without a doubt there were often differences that were impossible to overcome, but most often there was great respect, appreciation, and recognition for the work of the Commission.

I could make many recommendations to the State, but this is not the time, nor have I been asked to do so. However, there are two recommendations that I consider to be essential, but that experience has taught me are not all that common for the States.

First of all, something very simple: A State can always do more for human rights. The glass of human rights is never full. There is no grounds for failing to do more for human rights, but there are millions of reasons. Secondly, the fact that a complaint has been brought against them does not mean that they must automatically defend themselves. Attorneys, being attorneys, always tend to challenge the facts raised in a complaint. State human rights attorneys should not succumb to that "professional bias." Let us not forget that the democratic States and the Commission have the same aim: to respect and protect the human rights of all individuals. Taking this into account, when a State receives a complaint from the IACHR, instead of a defensive response—as I have seen the vast majority of times—the first step should be to immediately investigate what has been denounced, or to try to solve what may be a violation of human rights.

I would like to especially thank the members of the Commission with whom I have had the honor to work. The leadership, experience, and knowledge that the vast majority of them have given me not only has been invaluable, but has also made the work at the Commission simpler and more pleasant. In these last 13 years, I had the unique opportunity to take classes from the best human rights professors and activists in the region.

Finally, there are three people without whom my work would have been impossible. Jorge Taiana, the previous Executive Secretary. He laid the foundations for my work. When I was Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression—a very difficult task in those first years of the Office of the Rapporteur—I always turned to Jorge for critical support and advice. Ariel Dulitzky, the Assistant Executive Secretary during the first years of my mandate. Ariel and I together took the first, difficult steps toward the Executive Secretariat of today. Finally, the current Assistant Executive Secretary, Elizabeth Abi-Mershed. Nobody knows the inter-American human rights system better than Elizabeth. But it is not only that knowledge of the system that makes her special; it is her extraordinary passion and daily dedication to the Inter-American Commission, always keeping in mind the essential purpose of our work: to help the thousands of people who see the Commission as a last alternative. Thank you, Elizabeth.

To all the staff of the OAS, and most especially of the Inter-American Commission, all my gratitude and recognition for the extraordinary job you have done under very difficult circumstances. The dedication, motivation, and effort you have applied in these last years has been the main factor behind the significant results that have been attained.

My final words of acknowledgment are directed toward the people for whom we work: those who view the inter-American system as their last opportunity for justice, those who suffer the most atrocious violations of human rights. That invisible person who tirelessly seeks justice: the victim. The raison d'être of the inter-American human rights system are the victims—past, present, and future. They are the reason I came to work every day for the past 13 years; they are the reason I never hesitated in making those calls to ambassadors and in signing thousands of letters addressed to the States. They are the reason I never gave in to the unfounded criticisms and the attempts to weaken the Commission's independence and autonomy. If I had to do it all over again, I would do the same: I would continue to find ways to do much more.

The exact moment when the inter-American human rights system means the most is precisely when that person whose rights have been violated, that person who has been abused and ignored and whose dreams have been destroyed, sits in a hearing before the Commission or the Court, and the State has the obligation to answer to that person. It is at that instant when the previously invincible power of the State, unfortunately sustained through a false notion of sovereignty, sits at the same level as a simple person, face to face, and the State must explain or apologize. It is at that moment that the heart of the inter-American human rights system is made evident: the protection of the human being as the ultimate end, for the State and for the Commission.

To all those victims, I can only ask forgiveness for not having been able to do more. I can only add that any errors made always had in mind the interests of the most vulnerable and the neediest in the region.

To conclude, I am convinced that if the Commission did not exist it ought to be created. But more than that, it ought to be created with more powers than it has now. The strengthening of the Commission necessarily implies more powers and more tools for the protection of human rights. A former Commissioner and great friend, Susana Villarán, the current Mayor of Lima, liked to say that the Inter-American Commission is like a toolbox that the international community uses to defend human rights. When we identify a problem, we should open the toolbox and find the best tool to solve it. Any process to strengthen the inter-American system must consider the creation of more tools if we truly want to call it a strengthening. Otherwise, once again it is merely a euphemism to hide other intentions.

This has been an extraordinary journey, and I enjoyed every second of it. When I leave in July, I will have the honor of continuing to work for human rights, at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights.

It has been a great honor to work for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and especially with the extraordinary group of people who are part of it.

Thank you very much.