Address by the IACHR President at the Forty-Third OAS General Assembly

Address by the President of the IACHR, Commissioner José de Jesús Orozco, at the Presentation of the 2012 Annual Report to the Forty-third General Assembly of the OAS

Washington, D.C., June 6, 2013

Distinguished delegates of the member and observer states;
Distinguished Secretary General;
Distinguished representatives of civil society;
Ladies and gentlemen: :

In fulfillment of the primary mandate set out in the Charter of our organization, the Commission hereby presents its annual report, which offers a summary of the human rights situation in the Americas.

There are reasons to take pride in having achieved significant accomplishments with respect to the essential rights of the human person, while at the same time recognizing the persistence of important challenges in the context of our democracies with a view to ensuring their full exercise. Accordingly, I will site here some examples from the agenda of issues considered by the Commission during 2012: constitutional and legal reforms were approved in a number of countries to safeguard gender identity; mechanisms were implemented at the national level to prevent torture and to protect human rights defenders; alternatives to compulsory military service were established, as were policies benefiting asylum seekers; enhanced guarantees concerning the right of movement and residence were issued, as were efforts to modernize the justice system and to promote the control of conventionality at the level of the states.

The Commission also took note of public polices promoted by a number of executive branch members in the Americas to ensure the projection of the rights of the human person. Specifically, these include advances in the fight against poverty, the protection of economic, social, and cultural rights, as well as the dismantling of barriers to justice and providing for reparations where such obstacles remain. The Commission welcomes such measures, inasmuch as the resolution of conflicts requires justice, truth, and reparations. These advances should serve as inspiration for dismantling any remnants of systematic impunity in the Americas, which is still a major pending task. The imprescriptibility of crimes against humanity is a peremptory norm of international law, to which the states are obliged to adjust their laws and practices.

With regard to access to justice, one of the fundamental means for preventing the abuse of power by state agencies is a properly functioning, independent judiciary to oversee the constitutionality of actions of the judicial branch as the organ entrusted with discharging justice and defending human rights. In this context, I should like to pay tribute to our courageous judges who, day in and day out, set an example of human dignity by exercising the delicate—and in some cases, dangerous—work of discharging justice impartially and independently in the Hemisphere. Judges are and will continue to be accorded special protection by the Inter-American Commission, in view of their significant role in defending human rights.

Distinguished delegates, allow me to direct your attention to our pending agenda. The specialized approaches of the various rapporteurships through which the Commission monitors the situation of individuals, groups, and populations who have be historically subjected to discrimination in the 35 member states of our Organization, is reflected in a variety of ways, such as the publication of ten thematic reports, including one entitled The Death Penalty in the Inter-American Human Rights System: From Restrictions to Abolition. The work of the rapporteurships also makes it possible to define and promote this agenda.

In 2012, the Commission reiterated its call for the states of our Hemisphere to implement mechanisms aimed at ensuring the effective protection of territory—and the natural resources pertaining thereto—that has historically been inhabited by indigenous peoples; specifically, by recognizing, granting title to, demarcating, and delimiting the collective property of their lands. Situations of structural exclusion and serious violence still persist. The Commission has urged effective compliance with the standards of the Inter-American System concerning indigenous peoples’ right to free, prior, and informed consultation, and called on the states to end the scourge of malnutrition among indigenous children.

The Commission welcomed the progress made in the region with respect to the adoption of laws and public polices to protect the rights of women, but emphasized the significant lag involved in enacting legislation and its application in practice. It also underscored the persistence of intolerable rates of different forms of violence and discrimination against women in all spheres of life, including politics, education, health, the family, and justice. On the whole, women are more affected by poverty than men; they have less access to housing and health care services, and are subjected to physical and sexual violence in much greater numbers than their male counterparts. During the reporting year, the Commission published six thematic reports containing different dimensions of this problem and formulated specific recommendations to assist the States in adapting their actions to meet their international commitments.

In 2012, the Commission lamented the deaths and kidnapping of migrants in various countries, and underscored its concern over the tendency of some states to criminalize irregular migration or even those who help these migrants. Crossing a border without the required documentation or overstaying a visa is not a crime in itself, but, at most, an administrative offence. Other abuses observed included the excessive and disproportionate use of force during migration enforcement operations; the detention and holding of irregular migrants in deplorable conditions and without recognizing their due process guarantees; and xenophobic statements in which authorities and the media encouraged the stigmatization of migrants.

The states should also accord priority on their agendas to the troubling situation of the right to freedom of expression. The report presented to the Inter-American Commission by its Special Rapporteur in this subject matter area shed light on the critical risks faced by journalists who, in 2012, continued to fall victim to homicide, aggression, and threats. The states have an obligation to protect journalist who, owing to the nature of their work, are at special risk. The states also have a duty to investigate, prosecute, and punish the perpetrators of these crimes, not only to ensure the victims and their families receive reparations, but also to prevent future acts of violence and intimidation. The special rapporteur, whose work we very much support and appreciate, also called attention to other dimensions of freedom of expression in the Americas. For example, the enforcement of criminal legislation to prosecute people who have made statements that offend public officials, the existence of good practices in this subject matter area, and the importance of enacting and implementing laws that facilitate access to information.

The rights of children and adolescents in the Hemisphere also constitute a particularly urgent pending issue. For example, the Commission is concerned over the situation of interned children and the problems adolescents face when attempting to access justice in cases of sexual violence, as well as the high rates of homicide and forced disappearance among young people in connection with gang violence.

Another group very much at risk are our human rights defenders in the region, and I commend them for their dedication and the extraordinary work they do. During the reporting year, the Commission published its second report on the situation of human rights defenders. As in 2006, this report also documents the fact that our human rights defenders have been the victims of homicides; executions and forced disappearances; aggression, threats, and harassment; as well as treated like criminals and subjected to unlawful, arbitrary, and abusive interference in the pursuit of their activities. The Commission reminds the states of their duty to protect human rights defenders in their important work of helping to safeguard human rights.

The situation in the prisons of our Hemisphere, the focus of a thematic report promoted by the current rapporteur, continues to be appalling. Consequently, the Commission urgently calls for the adoption of short-, medium-, and long-term public policies to guarantee the rights of persons deprived of liberty. These polices should contain the four essential elements examined in the report promoted by the current rapporteur; namely, continuity, a suitable legal framework, sufficient budgetary resources, and institutional integration. The Commission notes with great concern that the human rights violations among this population have likely resulted in hundreds of violent deaths under state custody.

The Commission also published its report The Situation of People of African Descent in the Americas, which provides a documented and detailed account of how people of African descent continue to suffer exclusion, racism, and racial discrimination, and have been rendered “invisible,” even in some states of the region where they constitute the majority. As a consequence of existing structural discrimination, these people generally inhabit the poorest areas with the most precarious infrastructure and are more exposed to crime and violence. They also encounter serious obstacles regarding access to health and education services, as well as in obtaining housing and employment.

In 2012, the Commission continued to give special thematic emphasis to the rights of lesbian, gay, trans, bisexual, and intersex persons, which included efforts to promote action plans to develop standards and raise greater awareness of the intolerable levels of violence to which these groups are subjected. By way of example, last October and November the Commission received reports of 54 homicides perpetrated against people in this group, as well as attacks against personal integrity, including serious acts of violence by individuals on persons identifying in this group, sexual assaults against lesbians, and situations of police abuse and arbitrary detention, especially of transwomen.

Also during 2012, in keeping with our commitment to strengthening economic, social, and cultural rights, in response to suggestions received from the states and civil society groups, the Commission decided to establish a special unit to monitor the significant and persistent challenges in this area as a consequence of the deep disparities present in our societies.

Honorable General Assembly, the Commission wishes to recognize the states for fully complying with its recommendations on reparations measures in the cases summarized in its report. With regard to matters pending compliance, the issues involved are hardly controversial. For the most part, the pending agenda concerns the investigation and punishment of violations that have been confirmed by the Commission. Once again, the recurring problem of impunity is the issue. I regret to report that in over a hundred cases involving 24 states of the Hemisphere the necessary actions ordered to administer justice have yet to be implemented. The Commission therefore urgently appeals to this honorable Assembly to act on its responsibility to vigorously advocate the need to fully comply with the Commission’s recommendations, which reflect the obligations of the states enshrined in the Convention and the Declaration. Recalling the words of human rights defender Gizela Ortiz in her stirring testimony before one of the hemispheric hearings held by the Commission in 2012: “Why has nothing yet been done to locate our disappeared relatives? Why are persistent human rights violations in our countries not being investigated? After all the sacrifices our families have made to access the Inter-American Court, what good are its decisions? All of the deadlines have past and yet our states, after seven years, have not enforced its decisions? How many more years must we family members wait?

In addition to cases pending compliance before the Commission, in 2012 the Commission decided to refer cases against nine member states to the Inter-American Court.

Distinguished delegates, one of our most important institutional policy decisions has been to promote closer relations with the member states of the Caribbean. In 2012, more events and activities were organized in the Caribbean than in recent years. The Commission remains committed to making the System more accessible to the population of the Caribbean. Against this backdrop, the Commission issued its report during an on-site visit to Jamaica, underscoring the country’s difficult situation of violence, insecurity, and lack of access to justice and basic services, which disproportionately affects the poorest segments of society and those most vulnerable to human rights abuses, such as women, children, adolescents, and persons exposed to discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. To this end, the Commission drafted a series of recommendations designed to ensure fuller enjoyment and promotion of rights in this context.

In December 2012, the Commission made an on-site visit to Colombia. At the conclusion of the visit, the Commission acknowledged the important policies developed by that country to address the complex realities of more than five decades of its violent internal conflict—and the challenges this type of conflict has historically had on the country—, and to ensure justice, truth, and adequate reparations for its victims. Over the course of 2013, the Commission will consider the relevant country report on this complex situation.

Distinguished delegates, in Chapter IV of its annual report—according to the structure used prior to reforms—the Commission examined and reported on the specific situation of three states that have been the focus of special attention. In the first of these, Cuba, the political rights enshrined in the American Declaration have not been observed and structural situations persist that seriously and gravely impact the exercise and enjoyment of the essential rights set forth under the aforementioned Declaration. Limitations on political rights and the freedom of expression, the absence of elections and an independent judiciary, as well as restrictions on freedom of movement, have, over the decades, resulted in a situation of ongoing and systematic violation of the human rights of its inhabitants. During 2012, the available information led the Commission to conclude that the general human rights situation in Cuba remains unchanged.

With respect to the State of Honduras, the Commission reported on the alarming situation of citizen security, the lack of an independent judicial branch, and weaknesses in the administration of justice associated with the high rates of impunity, as well as discrimination against, and the marginalization of, certain segments of society. Part of the information reported concerns the effects and consequences of the 2009 coup d’état, particularly in terms of the right of freedom of expression and the situation of human rights defenders who have been monitoring situations that resulted in the aftermath of the coup, including the participation of members of the military in matters of internal security and issues related to the separation of powers. In this respect, the Commission observes with concern the high degree of noncompliance with recommendations issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CVR).

Lastly, with respect to the State of Venezuela, the Commission takes the view that structural situations, such as changes to legislation that have resulted in legal and administrative limitations, severely impact the exercise and enjoyment of human rights. For example, the Commission has reported on the adoption of legislation within the framework of the so-called “Enabling Law” (Ley Habilitante), the provisional appointment of judges and prosecutors, the abusive use of criminal law, interference in the work of human rights defenders, and impairment of freedom of expression, among others matters of special concern to the Commission. In September 2012, Venezuela denounced the American Convention. The Commission respectfully invites the State of Venezuela to reconsider its decision, which can only be detrimental to the persons subject to its jurisdiction.

Honorable General Assembly, we at the Commission face a significant, yet not insurmountable procedural backlog owing to the ever-growing increase in petitions and cases stemming from the heightened visibility of the Inter-American System and its commitment to democracy. We continue to leverage advances in technology and methodology to improve the efficiency of our work. Considering the tremendous opportunities and risks in play at present, the System has nowhere near the resources it needs and depends to an alarming degree on external resources to fulfill its protection and promotion mission.

The IACHR wishes to express it very particular appreciation for the important financial contributions received from countries, both in the region and elsewhere, and from the international organizations and agencies, and other entities.

Once the particulars of the reforms of the Commission’s Rules of Procedure, policies, and practices have been determined with the valuable input of the states and civil society groups, our immediate task will be to implement them with a view to ensuring more effective and efficient human rights promotion and protection, based on legal security and certainty, predictability, transparency, and accountability.

It is the hope of the Commission that the member states’ commitment to strengthening the System—and especially the work of the Commission—expressed in the declaration issued at the extraordinary General Assembly meeting this past March 22, will be reflected by allocating additional resources for its operations, by ratifying all inter-American human rights instruments, and, specifically, by complying with the recommendations and decisions of the System’s organs, in furtherance of the essential rights and dignity of the population of the Hemisphere.

Thank you very much.

Presenting this panorama gives an idea of workload the organ I represent must contend with to fulfill its mandate. To this end, some quantitative data is in order: as of December 2012, the IACHR was responsible for handling in a timely, very careful, and efficient manner, more than 10,000 separate matters, including petitions, cases, requests for precautionary measures, and monitoring activities in connection with the Inter-American Court. In addition, the IACHR is tasked with monitoring the human rights situation in the 35 member states of our Organizations, issuing hundreds of press releases each year, and following up with all the groups and populations on which it reports. Also in 2012, the Commission maintained dialogue with our member and observer states and a number of civil society groups; it held three regular sessions, 71 public hearings, and 48 working meetings; it made 30 working and promotional visits head by commissioners in their role as country or thematic rapporteurs, as well as numerous seminars, training workshops, and promotional activities.

The member states are responsible for providing the Commission with the necessary resources to fulfill its mandate. Consequently, I should like to amicably—but firmly—request that this honorable Inter-American forum immediately adopt the requisite compliance, ratification, and financing measures the Commission needs to fulfill its extraordinary purpose.

Thank you very much.

In conclusion, the process of strengthening the System has been timely, precisely because the Inter-American System is currently facing new and pressing challenges (or unprecedented challenges) in the process of building a region of consolidated democracies. The System’s users—namely the States, victims and civil society—will measure the level of success achieved in the strengthening process, based on our capacity to offer more and better human rights protection in the Americas.

We at the Commission face a significant, yet not insurmountable procedural backlog. We continue to leverage advances in technology and practices to improve the efficiency of our work. Nevertheless, the level of noncompliance with the Commission’s decisions and recommendations constitute a serious threat to the integrity and efficiency of the System. Considering the tremendous opportunities and risks in play at present, the System has nowhere near the resources it needs and depends to an alarming degree on external resources to fulfill its mandate of protection and promotion. It is clear to all is that making progress in one aspect of our basic protection mandate at the expense of the others is not viable. It is therefore critical that the States act without delay to fulfill their repeatedly stated commitment to significantly increasing the resources of the Commission.