Thursday, February 24, 2005

Washington, D.C.



Your Excellency,  Ambassador Manuel Cáceres, President of the Permanent Council of the OAS, Your Excellency, Ambassador Luigi Einaudi, Acting Secretary General, distinguished representatives of the member States of the Organization, and observers.  Esteemed colleagues, ladies and gentlemen:


I have the honor to address you in my capacity as President of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, on the occasion of this ceremony to mark the inauguration of our 122º regular period of sessions.  It is my pleasure on this occasion to be accompanied by my colleagues, Susana Villarán, First Vice-President, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, Second Vice-President, José Zalaquett, our immediate past President, and Commissioners Evelio Fernández, Freddy Gutiérrez and Florentín Meléndez.  We are also accompanied by Mr. Santiago Canton, the Executive Secretary of the Commission, and by members of the staff of the Executive Secretariat. 


          I have the honor of assuming the Presidency of the Commission, having been elected by my fellow Commission members, during the present period of sessions.  I would, on this occasion, like to make reference to the work of the Commission over the past year, under the Presidency of my predecessor José Zalaquett.  I also wish to recognize his excellent leadership of the Commission during a difficult period.


I would like to begin by mentioning a few important advances in the area of human rights that we have seen in the region: the launching of a comprehensive national human rights program in Mexico; the approval of constitutional reforms in Brazil aimed at modernizing the judicial system and amplifying the judicial mechanisms available to combat impunity for human rights violations; the successful carrying out of a referendum in Venezuela in spite of the conditions of extreme polarization; the efforts undertaken by Chile, Argentina and Paraguay to investigate and punish those responsible for serious human rights violations; the recognition of international responsibility by both Guatemala and Peru in cases concerning serious human rights violations before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ; the signing of a friendly settlement agreement on cases of forced disappearance that took place during the civil war in Honduras; the reaffirmation in the United States of the right to enjoy a judicial remedy or review in the case of the detention of citizens or persons classified as enemy combatants in the framework of the war on terrorism; the consideration being given in Jamaica to legislative changes concerning the application of the death penalty; and the possibility in Colombia of reopening criminal investigations based on decisions of international organizations, as well as the judicial confirmation of the need to comply with precautionary measures issued by the Commission. 


At the same time, we are faced with many pending human rights challenges in the region, where we continue to confront such longstanding problems as impunity in respect of human rights violations (for example, torture and extrajudicial executions); arbitrary detention; the insufficient development of the judiciary of the majority of the countries of the region, and the attacks in some countries on the independence and impartiality of the judiciary; inhuman conditions of detention in prisons; and a repressive mentality, often supported by public opinion, that offers the “strong hand” as the means of counteracting rising crime in the region, without duly addressing the causes of the problem. 


The region continues to be affected by crises of a political, economic and social nature in many countries.  These problems reveal the institutional fragility of the rule of law and the precariousness of the process of democratic consolidation in the hemisphere.  In some instances, popular demonstrations sparked by economic and social conditions have been met with police responses characterized by an excessive use of force, further polarizing political divisions.   


          At least 221 million people, that is, 44% of the total population of Latin America live in poverty.  Of these, 97 million live in conditions of extreme poverty or indigency.  In this same sense, Latin America continues to be the region with the worst indicators in terms of income distribution.  This economic situation, the high poverty indicators, and profound inequalities in the region constitute obstacles that impede the effective enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights, as well as having a negative impact on the efficacy of many civil and political rights. 


          Further, crime and citizen insecurity have reached alarming proportions in a number of countries.  The insecurity generated by the high levels of crime and growing inequality has in some cases provoked an increasing reliance on repressive police methods.  In this context, the use of torture and excessive force by the security forces remains a source of deep concern in a number of countries of the region.

          In this context of pending challenges, the inter-American human rights system has the necessary tools to collaborate with States in working toward societies characterized by ever-increasing respect for human rights, and by the existence of the systems of freedoms that go along with a democracy.  For this, we need political support, independence, autonomy and appropriate resources.


          In relation to political support, the Commission benefits from the constant and sustained support of the vast majority of member states.  One sign of this is the important process of reflection on the system that has been taking place within the Committee on Juridical and Political Affairs, and the consistent resolutions of the General Assembly concerning the strengthening of the system.


          With respect to our independence and autonomy, the troubling situation of a few months ago, in which the then-Secretary General issued an executive order setting out a new structure for the General Secretariat of the OAS, and which affected the independence and autonomy of the Commission, was a matter of public knowledge. 


          Fortunately, the Acting Secretary General, Ambassador Luigi Einaudi, has issued a new Executive Order that has remedied the situation.  Certainly we recognize and thank His Excellency Ambassador Einaudi, the Member States and the members of civil society who supported the Commission in a delicate moment that tested its capacity to fulfill the important mandate assigned to it by the Member States of the OAS.   


The fundamental problem faced by the Commission relates to its human resources and budget capacity.  We constantly receive more petitions, and constantly have additional mandates.  The petition system provides a very concrete example.  The number of petitions presented has steadily risen, in 2003 the Commission received 1080 petitions, and in 2004 that number rose to 1329.  Comparing the petitions received in 2000 with those received in 2004, the number has actually doubled.  However, in inverse proportion, we have less personnel and a reduced budget.  The crisis situation is such that, for the first time in its history, the Commission was forced to make the decision of canceling its period of sessions scheduled for October of last year.  The period of sessions finally took place by means of an extraordinary allocation of resources received at the last minute.  We are presently facing those same budget limitations, placing in question whether we will be able to carry out the second period of sessions scheduled for the fall of this year.


The Commission is certainly aware of the financial crisis the OAS currently faces.  At the same time, the percentage of the OAS regular budget that is assigned to the Commission is 3.8%.  We respectfully reiterate our requests for a prompt remedy for the unsustainable situation the Commission faces.


Turning to the key issue of the strengthening of the regional human rights system, I want to reiterate the importance of achieving universal ratification of the regional human rights treaties.  Another priority in this regard is achieving greater compliance with the decisions of the Inter-American Commission and Court.  With respect to compliance with Commission and Court decisions, it is important to highlight that we have seen important improvements in this regard.  The situation, however, is far from ideal, and the need still exists for Member States to fully assume their role as collective guarantors of the system.


With respect to the strengthening of the system, I would also recall that, as most of you know, the Commission has undertaken a process of reflection about its institutional role and the most effective responses to the current challenges in achieving a greater protection and respect for the human rights of each and every man, woman and child in the region.  As part of this process, we will be sharing our conclusions with the member states and representatives of civil society.


I am particularly pleased to mention that the efforts at creating a Special Rapporteurship on the Rights of People of Afrodescendants and against Racial Discrimination are about to bear fruit. 


With respect to the present period of sessions, the Commission has planned an intense program of activities.  As customary, we will dedicate the larger part of our work to the study and review of reports on individual petitions and cases pertaining to different countries in the hemisphere.  The matters being considered include 30 reports dealing with the admissibility stage of the proceedings and 14 concerning the merits stage.  During the second of the three weeks of the sessions, the Commission has organized more than 40 hearings on individual cases and petitions and on the human rights situation in the hemisphere, covering general issues or specific subjects pertaining to the mandate of the Commission.  Further, the Commission is presently finalizing its Annual Report setting forth the work accomplished during 2004, as well as planning the activities to be carried out throughout 2005.  I would add that, in addition to our work related to our period of sessions, the Commission is also working on a number of cases that will be dealt with by the Inter-American Court during the period of sessions it will initiate on February 28, 2005.


I thank each and every one of you for your continued support of the Commission, for your presence on this occasion, and now officially open the 122˚ period of sessions of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights.