Remarks by the IACHR President

Remarks by José de Jesús Orozco Henríquez, Chair of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, at the closing of the 149th regular session.

Washington, D.C., November 7, 2013

Your Excellencies:

Mr. Chairman of the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States, Amb. Walter Jorge Albán Peralta;

Mr. Secretary General of the Organization of American States, Dr. José Miguel Insulza;

Chief of Staff of the General Secretariat, Amb. Hugo de Zela;

Ambassador Representatives of the Member States;

Ambassador Representatives of the Observer States;

Distinguished Representatives of civil society organizations;

Honorable members of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights;

Executive Secretary, Assistant Executive Secretary, and Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Commission;

Ladies and Gentlemen:


It is an honor for me to address you in my capacity as Chair of the IACHR, in this closing ceremony of the Commission’s 149th regular session. I am pleased to be accompanied my colleagues, Tracy Robinson, First Vice-Chair, and Felipe González, Dinah Shelton, Rodrigo Escobar, and Rose-Marie Antoine. I would also like to mention Commissioner Rosa María Ortiz, Second Vice-Chair, who participated in this session but for family reasons was unable to attend this ceremony. Here with us as well are Executive Secretary Emilio Álvarez Icaza Longoria, Assistant Executive Secretary Elizabeth Abi-Mershed, and the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, Catalina Botero Marino, along with members of the staff of our Secretariat, to whom I express our deepest appreciation for their tremendous professionalism and unwavering commitment to the institution.

As you know, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights held its 149th session over the last three weeks. My colleagues and I attended to 52 hearings and adopted decisions on petitions and cases, in addition to attending working meetings with representatives of the distinguished OAS Member States and of civil society.

With regard to the hearings, we heard representatives of States and members of human rights organizations talk about the situation surrounding human rights in the Americas. In each of the hearings, we expressed our concerns about the problems raised; asked questions and delved into what might be the best courses of action to overcome them; and focused on understanding what commitments the States are willing to make to address the problems. As a result, the Commission received information with regard to some of the barriers and obstacles that continue, day after day, to undermine people’s dignity, especially when it comes to the most vulnerable. However, the Commission also recognizes and values the progress that was reported, as well as good practices in some countries of the Americas which are worth replicating in our hemisphere.

During its sessions, the Commission adopted a number of decisions using the powers given to it by the States, in treaties and statutes, for the defense and protection of human rights. Thus, we have determined what States are responsible for violating human rights in specific cases and what individuals are in situations of risk that warrant international protection through precautionary measures, among many other decisions.

In short, by the end of this period of sessions, the Commission had held a record number of annual hearings in its history, 123% more than five years ago. We ended the year with a total of 114 hearings, of which 10 had a region-wide focus with the rest looking at the situation in more than 20 countries throughout the hemisphere.

According to the information we received in the hearings, many challenges remain when it comes to the effective enjoyment of human rights. We saw that, even in democracy, the full exercise of human rights for everyone, everywhere in the Americas, is far from being a reality.

During these sessions, we held hearings on new issues that are widely relevant for the region. The Commission received information on the impact of States’ use of new technologies—such as drones—on the enjoyment of rights such as the right to a private life. The Commission also held a hearing analyzing the potential international responsibility of States that are home to extractive industries that operate abroad and infringe on people’s rights. The Commission also received information on direct and indirect restrictions to the legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of expression as well as on communications surveillance and intelligence activities and their impact on the right to a private life. In addition, the Commission held a hearing in which it learned about the impact of economic growth and poverty on new phenomena involving south-south migration in our hemisphere and on the rights of such individuals.

In addition, the Commission affirmed its commitment to persons with disabilities in the Americas, and for the first time held a hearing with simultaneous interpretation into sign language and on-screen, easy-to-read texts available for persons with intellectual impairments. We are convinced that we have an important duty to make the hearings accessible for everyone, and thus we hope to find the funds to be able to make this exercise an institutional practice.

The hearings also included the presence of four United Nations offices: the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees; the UN Special Rapporteur for freedom of expression; the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; and the United Nations Children’s Fund. The presence of these entities strengthens the synergy between the Inter-American Commission and the United Nations as bodies working for the international protection of human rights.

In terms of pending challenges, the Commission observed, from a cross-cutting perspective, how the work of defending and promoting human rights—so vital for the construction and consolidation of every democratic society—has been hampered in some States. Human rights defenders are targets of killings, attacks, threats, and acts of harassment, as well as statements made by high-level authorities for the purpose of disparaging and stigmatizing their work. The Commission also observed that structural discrimination continues to exist in a number of States, with a serious impact on the enjoyment of human rights among various populations. In that respect, the Commission took note of serious obstacles that women face in the exercise of their right to live free from violence, as well as in the exercise of their reproductive rights. That situation is aggravated when it comes to women of African descent and indigenous women, who historically are victims of triple discrimination based on gender, poverty, and race. The Commission verified the ongoing discrimination, in fact and in law, faced by lesbian, gay, trans, bisexual, and intersex persons (LGBTI), as well as the serious situation faced by children and adolescents due to the special impact of citizen insecurity and armed conflicts on their rights.

Another issue that came up in the hearings had to do with the lack of effective protection of indigenous peoples’ right to ownership of their ancestral territories, particularly as regards the right to prior consultation and the implementation of mega-projects by extractive industries. The Commission also received troubling information on the situation of displaced persons in the hemisphere, as well as on the problem of trafficking in persons and the refugee phenomenon.

On another matter, the Commission turned its attention to the obstacles and challenges involved in access to economic, social, and cultural rights by peasant populations in the Americas. In addition, during this session the Commission held its fifth hearing on the situation of the rights of detainees at Guantánamo, in this case responding to a request from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, and having received current information that continues to point to an extremely serious situation.

One especially serious problem that has drawn the attention of the Commission had to do with allegations concerning the fragility of the judiciary in several States of the hemisphere and a failure to respect the fundamental principle of separation of powers. The Commission stresses that an independent judiciary is essential to ensure that all actions carried out by the other branches of government are constitutional and conform to conventions, as the judiciary is precisely the body responsible for providing justice to those whose rights have been violated.

Moreover, the Commission was able to verify in many hearings that impunity, unfortunately, is being perpetuated in a number of places in the hemisphere.

Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

When victims and civil society organizations attend hearings before the Commission, they trust that they will be able to find a response that enables their human rights to be respected and guaranteed As a result of the hearings, the Commission can adopt a series of decisions, within the scope of its mandate, which will be received by the States. In this sense, the operating model for the inter-American system—and for the international justice system in general—requires the active participation of the States, precisely because they are the very guarantors of the rights of people who live in their jurisdictions. This is how international monitoring systems created by democratic States are understood to function.

In that spirit, the Commission trusts that the representatives of the distinguished State of the United States will provide, as soon as possible, the information requested with regard to the issues raised in the hearings in which it participated without having the technical information at hand to respond to the points made by the petitioners and the Commissioners.

In addition, the Commission expresses its concern regarding the absence of the distinguished State of Ecuador in the hearings on freedom of expression and association and on indigenous peoples’ right to prior consultation.

For the Commission, hearings provide an important opportunity for dialogue with the States and civil society. Participation in hearings and meetings is essential to help strengthen the work of protecting and promoting human rights throughout the region; thus the Commission appreciates the committed participation of the vast majority of the States and of the organizations that attended the hearings.
In addition to participating in the hearings, during these sessions we also examined cases; these involved both countries that have ratified the American Convention as well as those that are not parties to that treaty but are members of the Organization. The Commission adopted various reports on admissibility, inadmissibility, and friendly settlements, as well as archive reports and reports to decide on the merits of cases. Besides resolving specific situations, with these decisions the Commission continues to consolidate its case law and international human rights standards. The Commission reiterates that one of the first steps that will enable States to address rights-related issues in their jurisdictions is compliance with the decisions of the bodies of the inter-American system. I would like to convey the Commission’s urgent appeal for full compliance with its recommendations, which in fact are made in observance of the powers the States themselves established for the Commission in the Convention, the American Declaration, and its Rules of Procedure. In addition, we call on the States and organizations to participate and strengthen the friendly settlement mechanism so as to more quickly bring victims closer to justice and to adequate reparation.

During this session, we Commissioners also held 18 working meetings with representatives of several of the distinguished States of the hemisphere and civil society organizations, in order to follow up on precautionary measures and monitor progress on compliance with cases. In addition, as you well know, the Commission decided to accept the invitation by the distinguished State of the Dominican Republic to carry out a visit to that country. Given the information provided on the possibility that the implementation of a recent Constitutional Court judgment (0168-13) could lead to tens of thousands of people being deprived of their right to nationality—with the consequent risk of becoming stateless—the Commission deeply appreciates the distinguished State’s openness, and trusts that the visit can be carried out urgently. We are in the process of determining the best dates to conduct the visit, in response to the distinguished State’s offer to be able to achieve an effective collaboration, and thus I would take the liberty of insisting on the pressing need for the visit to be carried out as soon as possible to ensure that the Commission’s contribution is timely.

In addition, during these sessions my colleagues and I had the opportunity to exchange thoughts on some procedural aspects of the processing of cases before the Commission, particularly on how to optimize our strategy for friendly settlements and how to reduce the procedural backlog in the processing of individual petitions. We also reflected on some of the recent decisions of the Inter-American Court and analyzed the Commission’s approach to the rights of persons with disabilities, the right to truth, and the rights of older persons. On that last subject, representatives from the Commission will attend a meeting tomorrow with the Working Group that is working to consolidate a convention for the benefit of this population.

Throughout the session, the full Commission was also presented with four draft thematic reports for its consideration, having to do with 1) the impact of the friendly settlement process; 2) guarantees for the independence of justice operators in the Americas; 3) the human rights situation of migrants and other persons in the context of human mobility in Mexico; and 4) the situation of indigenous people in voluntary isolation. In addition, we were apprised of the progress made by the Secretariat with regard to 10 additional reports. Once these reports have been approved, the Commission will welcome invitations by the States and organizations to present them in different places in the region, in the spirit of working together to promote human rights standards and helping to overcome the obstacles described in the assessments made in those reports.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The very dynamics of these sessions and the attendance and participation of the Member States and civil society organizations committed to the system affirm the confidence placed in the Commission as a principal body of the Organization of American States, which has been entrusted to carry out the very important task of safeguarding human dignity. The many activities carried out by the Commission confirm that it is continuing to effectively exercise its mandate to promote, protect, and defend the human rights of everyone in the region, with the central objective of meeting the expectations of justice for victims of human rights violations, an essential task and one to which we are fully committed.

However, I would emphasize that the Commission is also an important place for dialogue, and it will always be open and willing to improve its internal procedures and make them more efficient, in order to help strengthen and improve the human rights situation. Dialogue is a principle of democracy. It is important to note that the instruments that exist in the Commission do not substitute the protection mechanisms created by the States, but complement them. In fact, through mechanisms such as hearings, the States receive “early warnings” about situations that affect human rights, and they are able to take heed and incorporate such issues into their own national human rights agendas.

As part of the Commission’s ongoing willingness to engage in dialogue with the various actors in the inter-American system, I would like to share with you that, during this session, the Commission set aside an important place on its agenda to examine the state of progress on the commitments made to the States with respect to the 53 recommendations included in the report of the Working Group to Reflect on the Workings of the Inter-American System. 

Of the 43 commitments taken on by the Commission as part of the reforms to its Rules of Procedure, policies, and practices, in effect as of last August 1, more than 80% are between 50% and 100% fulfilled, with significant progress made with regard to the rest of the recommendations underway. In that respect, I would reiterate the need for additional funds to be able to fulfill such recommendations, as is the case with having the Declaration, the Convention, and other instruments printed up in a pocket format; on this point, the Commission is even considering innovative collaboration approaches, such as publishing joint editions with other institutions.

Through the implementation of its reforms, the Commission has already complied with a group of recommendations, such as those related to applying more rigorous and transparent criteria for 1) receiving and conducting an initial review of petitions; 2) joining the admissibility and merits stages; 3) archiving petitions; and 4) taking cases to the Court.

As far as precautionary measures are concerned, the Commission has complied with issuing resolutions on decisions to grant the measures. Once the parties have been notified, these are available on the Commission’s website.

Meanwhile, I am pleased to share with you that the implementation of a second group of recommendations is well underway. Among these recommendations, we have taken important steps to: 1) prepare multimedia materials on how the Commission works, and training materials on its protection mechanisms; 2) prepare a report on the effects of not having universal ratification of the American Convention and other treaties; and 3) include the issue of economic, social, and cultural rights in the Commission’s strategic plan.

Finally, there is a third group of recommendations the Commission has been implementing, such as training for justice operators, activities to educate people about the friendly settlement process, activities to promote ratification of the Protocol of San Salvador, and presentations and seminars to raise awareness of thematic reports. These recommendations have been carried out by the Commission throughout the year, and they will become institutionalized practices as they continue to be implemented. By way of example, throughout this year the Commissioners, along with staff of the Secretariat, have conducted a number of training and promotional activities in close to 25 countries in the hemisphere.

Without a doubt, the collaboration and dialogue among the various participants in the human rights system throughout this process has borne fruit in the recent reforms of the Commission. Because the process was open, inclusive, transparent, and participatory, I am convinced it has contributed to greater legal security and certainty, predictability, and transparency in our procedures and criteria and in the Commission’s overall management and decision-making. My colleagues and I reaffirm our enthusiasm and interest in carrying out our best efforts to comply with the entirety of the commitments we have made, and we will keep the Member States of the Organization and civil society informed in a timely manner.

I would like to stress that one of the main challenges for the consolidation of a strengthened inter-American system is in the lack of human and financial resources appropriate to the volume of petitions, cases, precautionary measures, general oversight tasks, and mandates conferred by the OAS Member States, added to which are the commitments assumed in the process of reflection for the strengthening of the inter-American system. We are convinced that the system should be funded entirely by the States in the region, taking note of and following through on what has been stated in resolutions of the General Assembly of the Organization. The Commission does not fail to recognize that despite the current difficult financial situation, in response to the resolution passed by the Special General Assembly on October 30, 2012, the States and the Organization itself have undertaken significant efforts to maintain the Commission’s budget. However, the system is currently far from having the resources it needs, and it depends to a troubling degree on being able to obtain external resources to fulfill its protection and promotion mandate.

The Commission especially appreciates the financial contributions made on a regular basis by countries in the region and beyond, as well as by international organizations and agencies and other entities that have helped make it possible for the Commission to continue its work. They are: Argentina, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, United States, and Mexico, as well as Denmark, Finland, France, Spain, Holland, Ireland, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Sweden, and the European Union. We have also received contributions from the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), Plan International, Save the Children International, UNAIDS, UNICEF, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and the University of Notre Dame.

On another point, I would like to share with you that the Commission will be attentive to the efforts of the Working Group on the Strategic Vision of the OAS. Our Executive Secretary will be present next week on behalf of the Commission to present our perspective.

Finally, I would like to especially recognize Commissioners Dinah Shelton and Rodrigo Escobar, who will finish their mandates at the end of this year. On behalf of the Commission, I thank them for their outstanding work in the defense and promotion of human rights in the Americas. I would also like to thank my colleagues for the trust they have placed in me as Chair of the Commission, a position from which I have also been able to attest to the professionalism and dedication of the entire staff of the Secretariat, qualities that have been a source of my admiration and pride.

Thank you very much.