Media Center



March 22, 2013 - Washington, DC

This special session is the culmination of a process that started almost two years ago - at the San Salvador General Assembly. The statement by Foreign Minister Hugo Martínez, President of that General Assembly, ratified by the Plenary, instructed "the Permanent Council to deepen the process of reflection on the workings of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) against the backdrop of the American Convention on Human Rights and its Statute, with a view to strengthening the inter-American human rights system and submitting its recommendations to the member states as soon as possible."

But the beginning of the current process and the value it gives the OAS can only be understood by placing it in its historical perspective because in its more than 50 years of existence, our Inter-American Human Rights System (hereafter, the IAHRS) has undergone significant change. Its origins get confused with those of our Organization because of the Charter establishing the OAS, in Bogotá, Colombia, adopted in 1948, and the “American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man".

Just 11 years later, however - against the backdrop of the Meeting of Consultation of Ministers of Foreign Affairs, held in Santiago, Chile in 1960 - the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights was established. Once its Statute was adopted, it began operations in 1960. The IACHR was born in a context that was not conducive to any level of progress in human rights; yet the determination and strength with which it faced adverse situations that unfolded in a number of OAS member countries was striking. Besides, there was an insistence on expanding its functions for it to be able to provide effective protection to victims of abuse.

For more than 20 years, during a particularly bloody period of our hemisphere's history that was marked by massive and systematic human rights violations in various countries of the region and invoking the doctrine of national security the IACHR operated as the only human rights protection mechanism in the IAHRS, until the Court came into operation in 1979.

I make particular note of these dates because the Inter-American Commission predates the Convention of San José and the creation of the Court by 20 years of operations. It took 20 years to fully build the system: it was begun with the establishment of the Commission in 1960; continued with the adoption of the Convention in 1969; and culminated with the establishment of the Court, in 1979.

The positive evolution of the regional political reality made for a more complex relationship among the organs of the IAHRS and member states. In the post-dictatorship and post-civil war era marked by new democracy-building processes, the IACHR would diversify and expand its issues, practices, and functions, in line with the new reality in the region and the demands of our Inter-American Democratic Charter. At the request of groups of states, in the early 1990s the Court, in its Advisory Opinion No. 13, would confirm the powers of the IACHR to determine whether domestic laws of member states are compatible with the Convention itself.

But the basic question was then, and remains today, how to articulate the relationship between the IACHR and member states under democracy. At the General Assembly held in Managua, Nicaragua, in 1993, the central argument revolved around adapting the system to the new reality. There was talk of a "renewed" inter-American system; of cutting back on the IACHR's human rights defense role; and of the importance that the promotional role would take on in this new era; of proper geographical representation; and the possibility of having just one body, merging Commission and Court.

In 2000, in Windsor, Canada, a decision was taken with the Resolution of the General Assembly to continue the process of improving and strengthening the IAHRS through systematic and ongoing dialogue among the states, the organs of the system, and other relevant actors. This resolution also identified seven areas of procedural recommendations to the Commission and the Court, endorsing the recommendations, the Commission modified several key aspects of its procedures to allow it to work more efficiently.

In 2004, in the CAJP, a process of reflection was embarked on a General Assembly Resolution of that year, on "Strengthening of Human Rights Systems pursuant to the Plan of Action of the Third Summit of the Americas." The recommendations arising from this process led to the adoption of the “Program to eliminate the procedural backlog”. Again, under the purview of the CAJP of the OAS between 2008 and 2009, a new process of reflection was instituted, the results of which are more or less reflected in the adoption of new rules of procedures by the Commission, in 2009.

How little most of our critics seem to know about this process! The dialogue between the political organs and the Commission has been running for over 20 years and, far from damaging or threatening the system, this has made it even more relevant.

Throughout this process, as at the present time, the key role of civil society must be highlighted. Civil society organizations have played a key role in the establishment, development, and strengthening of the IAHRS. Their courage in defending the survival of the system through its difficult beginnings, always seeking truth and justice, and their constant need for respect for the basic autonomy of organs, deserve our recognition. They are always welcome in this organization and, in particular, at this Special Assembly.

This is the historical background to our discussions today: a constant process of dialogue between member states, the IACHR, and civil society. Although the most recent phase in this process began 18 months ago, from a historical perspective it forms an ongoing part of a much longer debate.

We began our work on June 29, 2011, with the establishment, within the Permanent Council, of a "Special Working Group to Reflect on the Workings of the Inter-American Commission on Human with a View to Strengthening the Inter-American Human Rights System." The Group went about its work for almost a year, receiving all those who wanted it to hear their views, in permanent dialogue with the organs of the system and scrupulously respecting their autonomy.

This full respect for autonomy was very clearly reflected in the Report of the Working Group. The bulk of that report (53 of its 68 recommendations) is directed at the Commission. The same approach was maintained when, at its forty-second regular session in June, 2012, in Cochabamba, Bolivia, the General Assembly endorsed the report of the Working Group and instructed the Permanent Council to formulate proposals for its implementation in dialogue with all the parties involved. For that reason, as the Chair mentioned in this introduction, and that reason only, we are gathered here today.

I trust this Assembly will take note of the IACHR's positive response to the concerns raised by the member states in Cochabamba and that we can close this debate with effective support for our Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

We have also reached consensus regarding our aspiration to attain universal recognition of the IAHRS, reflected in the call to all OAS member states to accede to the whole set of instruments and organs making up the system, as well as in the need for all member states, within the framework of respect for their sovereignty and self-determination, to abide by the resolutions of the organs of the IAHRS.

Although this aspiration has been more strongly reiterated in recent weeks, I believe it is worth recalling that it was proclaimed on several previous occasions. I could point, for instance, to the Plan of Action of the Third Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, Canada, in 2001, which includes the commitment of the member states to "Consider signing and ratifying, ratifying, or acceding to, as soon as possible and as the case may be, all universal and hemispheric human rights instruments." Similar texts were adopted at several of our General Assembly sessions, especially the one held in San Salvador, when we embarked on this current process.

It strikes me as important to stress, however, that, as several countries have requested in this debate, our way of approximating to universal ratification must not, under any circumstances, include measures to exclude certain countries that have not signed some instruments. The shortest route to achieving our objective will be through invitation and dialogue, not through attempts to repel or punish.

I greatly appreciate the seriousness with which the subject of how the system is to be financed has been incorporated into the debate and the fact that some of our member states have put forward concrete proposals in that regard. Many of the reforms proposed would substantially enhance the effectiveness of our system, but they would also entail expenses that our Organization cannot afford with the resources currently at its disposal, despite recent increases in budget allocations to the Commission and the Court. That is a matter that this Assembly session will not be able to settle, but I do believe there is a valuable consensus as to the need for the OAS member states to take it upon themselves, within a period of time to be determined, to finance all or at least the core aspects of the system.

Also important is consensus regarding the strengthening of the thematic rapporteurships established by the IACHR in order to keep better track of matters of importance for the defense of human rights. Whether “special” or not, the Commission is responsible for the rapporteurships and their rapporteurs issue opinions when they are backed by them.

The necessary strengthening of some of the rapporteurships cannot, however, mean that others are weakened. Here I must point out that, 15 years ago, the Rapporteurship on Freedom of Expression was the subject of a General Assembly resolution and also of the Second Summit of the Americas. In my opinion, rather than curtailing that experience, we can put it to good use, as a model for the extension of other equally necessary rapporteurships. At the same time, I consider it useful to strengthen the Rapporteurship in connection with a program of ample defense of freedom of expression. Such a program would undoubtedly include issues relating to the curtailment of that freedom by public authorities, but also address the harmful effects of concentrating the media in the hands of monopolist groups, as well as the threats and crimes to which journalists and the social media are increasingly subjected in our region and the obligation of states to protect them.

I would like to end these remarks by reaffirming, yet again, our call to preserve, at all costs, the autonomy of our inter-American human rights system. The citizens of the Americas who resort to the Commission and the Court do so in the conviction that they are contacting institutions that will hear their cases freely and without coercion. The virtue of the system, that our democracies need to strengthen, lies precisely in an apparent contradiction: the system is created and maintained by the states of the Americas to promote human rights and to defend them, even against possible violations committed by those very same states.

But that contradiction is only apparent. It reflects the commitments our governments undertook on behalf of our peoples in the first article of our Inter-American Democratic Charter: “The peoples of America have a right to democracy and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it.” No other organization better reflects that commitment than our inter-American human rights system.

Thank you very much.