No. 39/02


The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights opened its 116th regular session here today, with an inaugural address by Commission President, Dr. Juan Méndez, who talked about various aspects of the human rights situation in the hemisphere.


In his address, Dr. Méndez said that vast segments of society found themselves in a particularly vulnerable position in the wake of the structural adjustments and economic imbalances that had been occurring in most OAS member countries. Such a situation was attributable to the fact that these groups had been excluded from the benefits of progress and lacked access to education and the means of satisfying their basic needs. Dr. Méndez expressed concern about the economic and social crises that had brought down living standards in many countries of the hemisphere, in some instances crippling State institutions.


He alluded to the breakdown of democratic institutions and weaknesses in the rule of law in many countries across the region.  Despite the great strides made towards the holding of free elections in virtually every OAS member State, institutions in a significant number of countries continued to suffer from shortcomings that impeded the effective rule of law, he said. As a result, fundamental human rights were adversely affected thus creating a climate conducive to social crisis. The stability that was needed for stable and sustained social and cultural development continued to be postponed.


The Commission had repeatedly expressed concern about the human rights situation in Colombia where basic rights were being gradually eroded and the country has failed to implement the recommendations made in the Commission’s general reports. In this connection, Dr. Méndez said that the country’s civilian population had been the victim of serious violations of human rights and abuses of international humanitarian law, in a climate of impunity. The civil unrest that prevailed should not lead to a situation where little or no protection was afforded to vulnerable groups such as the civilians, displaced persons, social and union leaders, and defenders of human rights. Nor should such a situation interfere with the workings of the judiciary or prevent human rights violations from being fully investigated.


In August, on its most recent in loco visit to Haiti, the Commission again issued a warning about deficiencies in the rule of law in that country, the absence of an independent judiciary, the climate of impunity and insecurity for the civilian population, armed groups that acted with impunity, and threats to certain journalists. In his address, the Chairman said that the lack of any dialogue between the principal sectors of Haitian society posed a serious obstacle to finding solutions to these problems and was undermining the basic pillars on which the rule of law was established in accordance with the American Convention and the Inter-American Charter on Democracy.


With respect to the situation in Venezuela, Dr. Méndez felt that it was essential to maintain political debate within the bounds of democratic institutions, and that complaints filed by the opposition as to the way in which power was exercised by the government should not be intended to incite violence or disobedience on the part of the military. He said that the Commission would follow very closely the progress of the judicial inquiry into the events of 11 to 14 April 2002 to ensure that those responsible were brought to justice. He also indicated that the Commission was concerned about recent institutional developments that would appear to set limits on the scope of the investigation. Based on the Commission’s experience with violence and the breakdown of institutional order in different countries across the region, impunity simply encourages a repetition of activities at variance with the precepts of democracy and human rights.


On various occasions, the Commission has expressed the deepest concern about systematic attacks made directly or indirectly to hinder or thwart the efforts of defenders of human rights in the hemisphere. Dr. Méndez recalled that complaints continue to be received about attacks of various kinds and acts of intimidation against individuals who are dedicated to defending basic human rights in the hemisphere. Illegal searches of offices of human rights organizations, theft of equipment and information, death threats, physical abuse, stalking, abductions, and even murder were just some of the acts that were still being perpetrated. According to the Commission’s information, in the great majority of these attacks, charges are never laid.


The Commission envisages an intensive work program for the present regular session that begins today. It will consider numerous reports on petitions and individual cases from different countries in various stages of the review process, including admissibility, amicable settlement, merits or submission to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The session will culminate with a review of the Commission’s soon to be published report on terrorism and human rights.


During the second week of the three-week session, the Commission has schedule more than 60 hearings of cases and petitions in different stages of review as noted above. Also appearing before the Commission will be different individuals, organizations, and representatives of the member States who will present information of a general nature concerning the human rights situation in the hemisphere or will report on some specific aspect or right coming under the Commission’s jurisdiction.


The Commission is the principal body designated in the OAS Charter as responsible for enforcing the observance of human rights in all States in the hemisphere. The body is made up of seven judges, independent experts, elected individually by the OAS member States. The present membership of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights are Dr. Juan E. Méndez, President; Marta Altoguirre, First Vice-President; Jose Zalaquett, Second Vice-President; and Commissioners Robert K. Goldman, Julio Prado Vallejo, Clare Kamau Roberts, and Susana Villarán. The Executive Secretary is Dr. Santiago A. Canton.


Washington, D.C., 7 October 2002